By Arati Nair:
“I am special, one of a kind and unlike the others. In short, I am custom-made, limited edition and unique!” An emphatic sentiment echoed by the students of Sankalp, a school for the specially-abled, ensconced in the green environs of Navy Nagar, Mumbai. 10 years ago, as part of the ‘Each One Teach One’ campaign by the Rotary Club, I had the good fortune of interacting with the teachers, counsellors and students there. A homely institute that caters to the educational and recreational needs of the differently-abled, Sankalp is also a testament of our biased educational system, rife with ableism (a form of discrimination/social prejudice against people with disabilities).
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education, touted as the panacea for elementary education woes in India, was an attempt towards inclusive education. This inclusion is an on-going process and requires vital pedagogic innovation with regard to the needs of children with disabilities. While the Act enshrines the right to free and compulsory elementary education to children within the age group of 6-14, it also sanctions admission of older students in age-appropriate classes. Besides reservation for differently-abled students in private and specific schools, the act also directs schools to employ well-trained teachers to cater to their special needs. The provision of Home Based Education (HBE) is also available for children with multiple disabilities. HBE was envisaged as part of the ‘multi-option model’ and ‘zero-rejection policy’ of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA); a bid to impart necessary life skills and school preparedness in an environment most conducive to the child’s needs.
In the Union Budget of 2015, an amount of 636.94 crores has been earmarked for the Department of Disability Affairs, and 100 crores have been set aside for the flagship SSA, a share of which would be directed towards the educational needs of disabled children.
The proof of the pudding, however, is in its eating. Besides quantitative allocations, little has been qualitatively accomplished.
Governmental efforts, past and present, towards integrating specially-abled pupils into the mainstream school system have been diverse, albeit sluggish. Most schools covered under the Act have conventional infrastructure, devoid of ramps and disabled-friendly toilets. Installation of wall handles to ensure easy conveyance of children in wheelchairs has been incomplete. Often, the material used in wheelchairs is substandard, rendering them susceptible to frequent wear and tear. Irregular supply of books, relevant course materials and study tools to schools results in a lag in the academic year schedule. Infrastructural impediments are the main cause of disabled children electing to discontinue school education.
In a heterogeneous classroom of abled and specially-abled children, the teacher plays a pivotal role in employing inventive techniques to ensure holistic understanding and participation. Unwitting remarks or a pitying attitude towards the latter erodes their confidence, making them vulnerable to ridicule by their peers.
Alternatively, home-based education often becomes home-bound, stunting the all-round development of a child in isolation. These children, bereft of the conventional educational environment, are inadvertently side-lined. The teacher often visits the child only once a week and instructs him/her on subjects without a prescribed syllabus. Given the obscure standards set for recruiting special educators, and the shortage of qualified home instructors, HBE becomes a farcical attempt to shirk responsibility.
Another grave concern of many parents is the lack of adequate security measures in schools. Recent unsavoury incidents of sexual assault of differently-abled students in educational institutes have compromised the credibility of safeguards ensured under the RTE.
While all these infrastructural problems exist, in August last year, the Union HRD Minister, in reply to a question about enrolment of differently abled children in schools, stated that admission of children with special needs (CWSN) was less than one percent. A number that’s direct evidence of the non-inclusive nature of schools today. After all, how many of us remember having a disabled student in our midst during our school years. Doubt too many. What is even more alarming is that in spite of the scarcity of funds, the budget share for school education was slashed by 9.79 percent this year.
Resolution of these issues is simple if systemic changes are made, from trainings to awareness workshops to ground work that directly makes schools more disabled-friendly.
These systemic lacunae, if rectified, would reinforce the implementation of the RTE in letter and spirit. Schools like Udaan, Sankalp, day-care centres like those in Perambalur are all efforts by good Samaritans to propel education towards equity and sustainable social goals. What is needed is a concerted effort by the government and citizens alike that could help buttress such endeavours.
Disclaimer: Oxfam India is not associated with or endorses the organizations mentioned in the article. They are based on the author’s independent research.