A visually-challenged student, Rahul Bajaj, puts forward his views on inclusive education in India, in this essay.
In the past two decades, there has been a paradigm shift in the societal attitude towards persons with disabilities i.e. from viewing them as objects of sympathy to viewing them as equal and competent members of society. Education, being the currency of the 21st century, is the single, most powerful tool that can empower persons with disabilities. Therefore, I put forward my analysis on the major roadblocks in attaining the goal of inclusive education in India.
Contemporary Challenges :
In India, most children with disabilities are taught in special schools, apart from other students. This not only increases their sense of isolation, it also reaffirms the belief that such children constitute an ostracized section of society. Such special schools do not actually prepare the students for dealing with real-world challenges. Some people in favor of special schools argue that these schools enable children with special needs to get the type of special attention that they require and deserve. But while this may be partially correct, it also reflects the common understanding that ordinary schools are incapable of addressing the special needs of these children. In some rare cases, children with unique needs do require special attention and, admittedly, special schools are better suited for such purposes. However, there is not always a need for a child with disability to go to a special school.
The main issue lies in the indifferent attitude of most mainstream schools towards persons with disability. A recent study conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) has brought to light some startling facts. In the 89 schools that took part in the survey, a paltry 0.51% of the students enrolled were disabled, with girls forming only 33.25% of the disabled group. In the 96 colleges that participated in the survey, a mere 0.52% students were disabled. Furthermore, only 22% of these students were women. Only 0.10% students in the 119 respondent universities were persons with disabilities. These statistics paint a sorry picture. Even those students who do manage to study in an ordinary school have to face an array of complex challenges.
The lack of adequate number of special educators is yet another pressing problem that continues to plague the Indian educational system. Very few schools appoint special educators for assisting children with special needs to cope with their able-bodied counterparts. Moreover, most of the special educators do not possess the expertise or the experience that is indispensable for dealing with these children. Lack of infrastructure also acts as a major impediment. Most schools don’t have ramps and other facilities to allow children with disabilities to safely navigate within the school. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most school buildings nowadays are designed in such a complex and intricate manner that it becomes virtually impossible for children with disabilities to navigate in a safe, efficient and independent manner.
Another worrying problem is the lack of availability of educational material in an accessible format. Visually-challenged students require their study material in Braille or in electronic format. Most schools fail to provide them this study material in the required formats. Because of this, they are left with the following options:
- Converting the study material into an accessible format on their own.
- Taking the help of other people for studying.
Both these options can be extremely costly, inconvenient and often tedious. It is essential to understand the root cause for these various problems that are faced by students with disabilities in mainstream schools. All these problems stem from the low expectations that the society has from them. Most schools feel that it would be pointless to invest their time and resources in them. They earnestly believe that these children have nothing to offer to the society. They do not realize that with the right kind of support and encouragement, these children can excel and can lead extremely successful, productive and fulfilling lives. As with all other issues aforementioned, this problem is also found more in rural areas and small towns than in big cities.
The Way Forward :
While it is true that children with disabilities have to grapple with a lot of problems, it is also worth noting that very few of these problems are beyond our control. Albert Einstein famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So, the most important requirement is to change the mindset of those who occupy positions of authority.
The main mantra of Eyeway, a knowledge resource for the blind is: The problem is with the mind, not with the eyes. That being said, the main focus of NGOs, government agencies and other welfare organisations should be to raise public awareness about the challenges that are faced by persons with disabilities. Efforts must be made to change the approach of schools and colleges towards children with disabilities i.e. from sympathy to empathy. It is necessary to impress upon them the need to fathom the fact that these children form an integral part of society. It is equally important to provide some incentive to those educational institutions who do make extra efforts to meet the needs of these children. In the last decade, various policies have been framed for the social, economic and educational integration of persons with disabilities in mainstream society.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan of the Government of India is an ambitious program which seeks to provide basic education to every child in India. Many children with disabilities have been enrolled under this program. A comprehensive action plan for the inclusive education of children with disabilities was formulated in 2005. It aims at ensuring an available, accessible, affordable and appropriate learning environment for children with disabilities in mainstream educational settings. The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) also reiterates the need to get rid of the mindset that encourages exclusion and to provide quality education to all persons with disabilities. The National Policy on Persons with Disabilities (2005) also lays emphasis on providing inclusive education. The policy intends to provide every child with disability access to appropriate pre-school, primary and secondary education by the year 2020. The following are some of the measures that the policy suggests for attaining this goal:
- Making schools (buildings, pathways, toilets, playgrounds, laboratories, libraries etc.) barrier-free and accessible for all types of disability.
- Suitably adapting mediums and methods of teaching to meet the requirements of persons with disabilities.
- Popularizing National Open School and distance-learning programs and extending them to other parts of the country.
- Providing sufficient funding so that schools will be able to develop programs for students on needs basis, instead of funding basis.
- Promoting professional skill development in the areas of cooperative learning, peer tutoring and adaptive curriculum.
- Recognizing, standardizing and popularizing Sign language, Alternative and Augmentative Communications (AAC) and other methods as viable mediums in inter-personal communication.
- Setting up Parent-Teacher counselling and grievance redressal systems in schools.
- Developing well-constructed plans that identify specific accommodations, modifications, and goals for each student.
- Setting up a separate mechanism to review annually the intake and retention of girl children with disabilities, at primary, secondary and higher levels of education.
- Developing course curricula and evaluation systems, designed specifically for children with disabilities, modifying the examination system to make it disabled-friendly through options such as learning mathematics, learning only one language, etc. and further, providing facilities like extra time, use of calculators, use of Clarke’s tables, scribes etc., based on the particular requirements.
- Encouraging collaboration between general and special educators.
- Setting up Model Schools of Inclusive Education in each State/Union Territory to promote the education of persons with disabilities.
- Providing children with disabilities computer education and miscellaneous useful devices.
- Encouraging schools to make reasonable accommodations with necessary and appropriate modifications and adjustments where needed.
- Identifying children with disabilities up to the age of 6 years and preparing them to receive inclusive education.
- Making efforts for initiating effective public awareness campaigns designed: (i) to nurture receptiveness to the rights of persons with disabilities; (ii) to promote positive perceptions and greater social awareness towards persons with disabilities; and (iii) to promote recognition of their skills, merits, abilities and contributions to the labor market.
- Allowing access to tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and life-long learning for adults with disabilities.
- Putting in place effective individualized support systems to maximize academic and social development.
- Opening of new special schools by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, as per requirement.
- Rigorously enforcing 3% reservation for persons with disabilities in higher educational institutions and making efforts to encourage the institutions to make canteens, hostels and other such facilities accessible.
Very few of these measures have actually been implemented. Even though these measures appear fine on paper, they will continue to be meaningless until implementation is made possible. They have the potential to change the lives of many. It is very important to put appropriate mechanisms in place. Although many policies unequivocally state that some seats have to be reserved for students with disabilities in schools and colleges, this provision is often ignored by educational institutions. They refuse to give admission, citing petty reasons, even if the children meet all requirements. In all these policies, inclusion has been enshrined whereas segregation and discrimination have been rejected. The advancement of science and technology has opened many new avenues for persons with disabilities. This has also enabled them to compete with other children in academics and allied activities. It is the need of the hour to exploit these new resources to the fullest extent possible.
Education is indeed the most effective tool to attain social and economic empowerment. Inclusive education can play a paramount role in enabling persons with disabilities to lead successful lives. It is not only necessary to support children with disabilities in academic activities, but it is equally essential to promote their holistic development. They should also be encouraged to engage in extracurricular activities pertaining to sports, music, etc.
Rajesh Assudani, a visually impaired banker, rightly said “People think that disability means that we are not supposed to find pleasure in activities that ‘normal’ people do. We are expected to stick to the essentials and leave out the other things. This attitude needs to change.”
All schools must be held accountable for the way they treat their students with disabilities. It is very crucial to understand that the need of the hour is to promote policies which facilitate the education of these children, not those policies which claim to empower these children by isolating them. All stakeholders must work relentlessly for realizing the goal of inclusive education; it is not enough or appropriate to wholly depend on government agencies for making this dream a reality. Moreover, it is necessary for children with disabilities to learn the importance of advocacy from an early stage. Only then will they be truly able to control and direct their future. Parents of children with disabilities must also be informed about their rights. This will enable them to make more informed decisions and have a greater say in their child’s future.