In the past few years, I’ve met a cross-section of young people with disabilities who seem to have a universal struggle – access to education. As kids, they were either shepherded off to special schools or managed to get into mainstream schools with much difficulty.
That children, with and without disabilities, are still expected to study in separate schools in the 21st century is a disturbing thought, one that is no so different from the expectation that black and white children must study separately, in the times of segregation. Both reek of discrimination.
The concept of “inclusive education” is of course now entering society’s consciousness. But the question remains: how prepared is India to enable children with disabilities to study in mainstream schools?
Hector Ravinder Dutt, Principal of Delhi Public School, Rohak and Founder of the Association of Special Educators and Allied Professionals (ASEAP), offers insights on the state of inclusive education as well as special educators, a critical resource to ensure that children with disabilities can be mainstreamed, seamlessly (special educators are professionally trained to teach and facilitate education for students with a wide range of disabilities).
Merril Diniz (MD): Can you tell us about the state of inclusive education in India, both qualitatively as well as quantitatively?
Hector Ravinder Dutt (HRD): Inclusive education in the truest sense has to cover a distance of years in our country. In laws and acts it may sound good that inclusive education is the key recommendation of NCF (National Curriculum Framework) and RTE. But the million dollar question is – have we achieved even 10 percent of it in a real sense? The answer is a clear no.
The major reason is the lack of trained professionals, lack of general awareness not only on the part of parents but also of educators, which depicts a sad story. Most importantly parents of non-disabled students are not in favour of their children studying with children with disabilities in the same class. The ultimate sufferers are children and parents. We lag far behind both qualitatively and quantitatively and can learn from the best practices of the west.
MD: In your opinion, are there any mainstream schools that have really invested in inclusive education?
HRD: Honestly, very few schools have really invested in inclusive education. At DPS Maruti Kunj, where I worked as a counsellor, Principal Ms Rachna Pandit took the initiative to appoint counsellors and special educators. Now, my former school has five special educators, four school counsellors, and the parents and children are really benefiting.
When I joined DPS Rohtak as principal, there were none there. So, within six months we formed a counselling lab in school and now we have one special educator, two counsellors and one life skills expert. I can say that we are the only school in Rohtak to have built this kind of set-up. Parents, as well as children feel blessed that the school has got such facilities. The school is accessible, too.
MD: Can you tell us about the state of special educators in India – how many are employed in schools, as well as what kind of schools?
HRD: Currently, there are approximately 1 to 1.5 lakhs odd rehab professionals, of which approximately 90,000 to 1 lakh are registered with the Rehabilitation Council of India (some don’t register despite being eligible). The major percentage of these professionals work with Social Justice under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Integrated Education for Disabled Children, Primary Stage) and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (Inclusive Education for Disabled Secondary Stage).
A major share goes to NGOs working for special needs, and various other disabilities. A very small percentage are enrolled in private schools, hospitals, intervention centres and private clinics. The rest are unemployed.
MD: Is this because very few schools hire special educators?
HRD: The RTE and NCF clearly state, and even the MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) has issued a notification to the various boards to appoint permanent special educators in schools. CBSE has taken a step forward and its affiliation bylaws make it mandatory for every school to appoint special educators and school counsellors.
But most schools are reluctant to appoint them as they find the role of special educators negligible, mostly because they deny admission to children with disabilities and learning disorders. The ratio of special educators as per the norms is 10:1 at the primary level and 5:1 at the secondary level. Aside from the metro cities, in tier 2 or 3 cities you would hardly find special educators in CBSE schools.
MD: According to you have there been any positive changes due to the Accessible India campaign, in the context of education?
HRD: The Accessible India Campaign was launched with pomp and show on December 3, 2015 (World Disability Day), and I was lucky to have witnessed the launch physically. But frankly, its effect has not reached schools. If a proper survey is done on how many schools have become accessible since then, it would reveal the true picture. First of all, all government schools should be made accessible.
MD: What led you to start the Association of Special Educators and Allied Professionals (ASEAP)?
HRD: As a child, I was dyslexic and had an extreme phobia of school due to which I had no formal education up to Class 10. However, my parents were educationists by profession and I was lucky to be nurtured in a school where my mother was the principal. Eventually, I became a teacher and counsellor. Then during a conference, I met a group of special educators and heard their grievances. According to them, lack of awareness about the role of special educators was a major problem, and there was no mechanism, which was working aggressively for their welfare.
Though I was part of associations for psychology and counselling, it struck me that we need something unique for special educators, which could help them work in a structured and organised way for the sensitisation, awareness and growth of inclusive education. Initially, I began with a group of 10-odd people in 2014 and did most of the work virtually. But now we are doing a lot of work on ground and the results are positive. We officially registered the organisation in 2015.
MD: What are some of the organisation’s important goals? Who are the key people involved?
HRD: Making special educators and allied professionals employable and helping in their employment; safeguarding the interests of special educators and allied professionals; conducting training, workshops, seminars and capacity building programmes for their professional development; dissemination of knowledge among them, and advocacy for their rights. The key people, besides me, include principals of some prominent schools, clinical psychologists, special educators and doctors. We currently have 3,000 members.
MD: How many special educators and allied professionals do you believe India needs?
HRD: According to the 2011 Census, India has over 2.70 crore people living with a disability. For a population of this size, India needs minimum 15 lakh special educators to address their needs in the true sense. At the same time, we need a concrete policy for their training to make them employable by inculcating the required skills, knowledge and professional ethic.
MD: What is the way forward to ensure this?
HRD: I have observed that most people who opt for special education have only one dream – to get a government job. The soul of being a special educator by choice is really missing. A revolution is required to change the status quo. Remember the impact “Taare Zameen Par” and “My Name Is Khan” had in highlighting the problem of dyslexia and autism?
I feel media, be it print and electronic, can play a vital role in sensitisation and awareness process. Secondly, nationalised efforts are required of the proportion of the Pulse Polio Campaign to make inclusive education a reality, if we want to make India a successful nation.