Open doors, open minds
Though the Right To Education has been made law, it has yet to take that big leap from words to practical action, for special children to reap its benefits and get admission in mainstream schools
After the Right To Education (RTE) has been made law in the country, I get many phone calls from desperate parents of children with special needs, telling me how their needs are not being met. They call either because schools are flagrantly refusing their children admission, or because teachers do not understand the needs of their children and parents are being forced to take them out. It is laudatory that the UPA was able to make a landmark legislation and to make education a right for children with disability (long overdue as these children were historically a part of the Ministry of Education when the British left).
Now that the RTE has become law, it is imperative to ensure it does not remain another piece of legislation gathering dust, but is put into action. All schools, private and government, need to make the RTE operational and synthesize it with the existing Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). However, while recently examining some government schemes, I found that there are glaring omissions that need to be corrected. The documents all need to insert a definition including Children with Disabilities (CWD) in their schemes and budgets. And the schemes need to address the obvious lack of manpower in regular schools and what is to be the process of change that has to be initiated in the sensitization and training of teachers.
Going about this does not need rocket science, and has been suggested by me in many committees. The training of regular teachers is imperative for instilling the concept of inclusive education; regular teachers need to be sensitized and empowered to address the differing needs or the diversity of pupils in their classroom. This will not only make them better teachers, improving the quality of teaching, but will also improve retention and reduce school ‘drop-outism’. This has been done all over the world.
Teachers must be well equipped to address differences in the classroom. Inclusive education is about transformation of schools, school preparation, restructuring system, changing the role of teachers, creating a code of practice for actualizing RTE, and an inclusive education policy in every school. Government and private schools as well as teacher-training agencies need to run training courses to introduce the principles of inclusive education. For this to actually happen, the Ministries of Human Resource Development (HRD) and Social Justice and Health need to put it into action. The HRD Ministry has begun to do this through their SSA programmes, but there is still confusion about special education and inclusive education, even in the numerous organizations training teachers, such as the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). Guidelines on restructuring the existing system to introduce inclusive education, and on how to comply with RTE, have already been provided. If put into action, it will lessen the suffering of many. Today, when parents go to mainstream schools for admission of children with disabilities, hordes of children are being turned away and nobody is monitoring this. Let me mention the plight of a few children struggling with what is now called oppression, internationally.
Sonia is intelligent, emotionally and socially mature for her five years. Her ability to grasp new life-related concepts is good. However, she has trouble grasping academic concepts at school. Simple techniques can get her back on track. But what did the teacher do? She constantly chided her for not knowing or understanding things, which resulted in a drastic lowering of her self-esteem and Sonia started saying, “I cannot do this.” In junior kindergarten, the teacher empathized with Sonia but had absolutely no training in dealing with attention-deficit children. Due to this lack of training, Sonia lags behind her peers, feeling afraid and insecure, and lacking confidence.
Hema has cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair for mobility She completed her Std X (SSC) from the Spastics Society, now called ADAPT. She had always been a remarkable student, very dynamic and an active participant in all class activities, an ideal candidate for inclusion in a mainstream school. It had taken a few months to convince her parents to transfer her to a mainstream school. When this happened, the parents faced the usual resistance from regular schools. They went from school to school, getting refused because the teachers did not have the knowledge base of how to handle Hema.
The parents then wanted to approach a school near the Spastics Society -- or ADAPT -- in Bandra, where she passed her interview and the written test in the presence of the ADAPT representative. However, she was not given admission, the reason being that the school toilets were unhygienic and Hema would catch an infection. Her parents gave up trying for mainstream education.
Today, she is a young woman of 22; she is pursuing her MA in English Literature from Mumbai University, completing her graduation from SIES College, Sion and is simultaneously preparing to take her exams to qualify as a lecturer. She aspires to do her PhD in English Literature, after that. Here was an intelligent, bright, expressive young girl who was forced to continue education in a special school because of a lack of knowledge. Had she not had the education she received, she would be illiterate like hundreds who do not have teachers who understand their needs.
Ajay Gupta (7), a bright, cheerful little boy, was an ideal candidate for inclusive education last year. Ajay has cerebral palsy, he is being given extensive therapy and is being trained to walk with support. His parents were very eager for him to join his cousins in the mainstream school that they went to in their residential vicinity, Mahim. However, he was refused admission on the basis of no vacancy. ADAPT, approached a partner school and secured his admission. Ajay is today excelling in academics in his new school.
For RTE to be operationalized, all state authorities should monitor infrastructural compliance. Ramps and toilets, though essential, are not enough; transformation means addressing the sensitization of teachers. Revision of the present DEds and BEds, bringing in inclusive education as a compulsory module, Distance Learning being carried out by IGNOU, UGC and the changing role of teachers... all need to be addressed. Inclusive education is about transformation of schools. Many more children will get a chance if the system is slightly restructured. It is a painful situation for both child and parents. It is for the SSA as well as private schools to understand that to actualize the Right To Education, sensitization of teachers is key. After all, it is happening all over the world. Why not here in India?
The writer is Founder Chairperson, The Spastics Society of India, (now called ADAPT) and member, CABE (Central Advisory Board of Education), New Delhi