By Paavani Sachdeva:
Remember the movie Anjali? It revolved around a middle class family, where a man hides the existence of his new born “mentally retarded” daughter from his wife. The movie shows the trials faced by the child and the family regarding the unacceptance of this innocent little girl, Anjali, by the society. It was my earliest exposure to the plight of children living with disabilities, and the first reality check regarding societal attitudes on the acceptance, or the lack of it, for the needs of these children.
In a time when India loudly leads the discourse on development and the need for inclusive education, we are obliviously, systemically, excluding a section of our population, who we believe are forever doomed to be dependents. We have restricted our definition and understanding of inclusiveness largely to the economically and socially “weaker” sections of the society. We do not pause in our conversations to think about the needs of the children who traverse through the compartments of caste, creed, religion, gender, and economics. Children with Special Needs (CWSN) or Children with Disabilities (CWD) are a section of our population that is pushed into obscurity through a distressing collusion of poverty, lack of facilities, and a general acceptance that these children shall forever be indebted to other “normal” people.
In 2007, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was signed and ratified by India. The purpose of this convention was to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all the human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.
India has significantly emphasised upon the need for education for children. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan is the single biggest elementary education drive in the country. Despite the attempts made through the SSA, the National Survey on Estimation of Out of School Children estimates that there are 3 lakh children with intellectual disabilities of which 36% are out of school. Poor health, financial burden, and lack of facilities are cited as the most common reasons for keeping these children out of school.
While the first step towards inclusiveness is the acknowledgment of the existence of these children, the second step is to have an understanding of their needs. We must recognise that there are many types of intellectual disabilities, and each child is unique. While not giving up on inclusive education in regular schools, we must also realise that no uniform standard curriculum or process can be followed to prepare these children for the future.
Children with intellectual disabilities are often unable to engage with other people easily. Such children often face derision and ridicule at the hands of their peers. It is here that we must engage the rest of the society to accept them in our environment and mainstream education. It may not be your child who is living with disabilities, but being supportive of one who is, is a habit that must be encouraged.
The present understanding of the scenario and the policy on accessible education for the needs of the disabled has to evolve beyond the singular stress on infrastructure. Dr. Mithu Alur, founder-chairman of ADAPT, explicitly sums up the prevailing misunderstanding in ‘Special Education is Inclusive Education’ – “We think that making education accessible to the disabled means providing physical infrastructure like ramps or toilets,” he adds, “It actually means addressing pedagogy, teacher training, and spending money, strengthening the knowledge base of the regular teachers through short and regular courses on inclusive education. School and teacher preparation is what is needed. While we seem to fulfil the recommendations of toilet and ramps, we are shying away from the central driver of quality education — good pedagogy.”
It is here that the Government needs to step in aggressively.
A longstanding notion is that despite efforts to educate and encourage independence amongst children with intellectual disabilities, they shall always be dependent on others. While, the extent of their dependence is debatable, outright assertions of utter dependency are wholly incorrect.
In addition to creating an inclusive and conducive environment, a conscious effort must be made to particularly protect CWDs from abusers, both within and outside the family. A study reported that CWDs are 10 times more likely to be sexually and physically abused, because they are considered easy targets, and are less likely to complain.
Some of us would react to this article by saying that the government isn’t doing enough. I agree. Building infrastructure such as handicap friendly transport and comfortable workplace access are just some of the things that only the government is capable of providing.
But what the government cannot do is force a change in the attitude of the people towards the children with special needs. I leave you with a thought, is it not our responsibility too? Not as members of society, not as citizens, but as humans – is the onus not on us to ensure that no individual is bereft of the right to live with dignity and respect? A small effort from our side is all that is required. A smile, a few words of encouragement, and a chance to earn respect, are a few things that people with disabilities would prefer over altruism.
This article was originally published here.