By Teesha Chugh and Anisha Shekhar:
Segmentation and hierarchies in our society have existed from time immemorial. The prime cause of segmentation in Indian society dates back to ancient times when the varna system stratified our society. The ideology of segregating people from one another slowly spread its tentacles to several other fields and in many other directions.
While the stratification of society relegated the people with disability to the nadir of the social hierarchy, it left those with intellectual and developmental challenges even worse off. There are many kinds of intellectual and learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, etc. Not only is there a lack of awareness about these disabilities, but also an almost criminal apathy towards the challenges faced by persons with such disabilities. This lack of empathy in turn fuels alienation of the ones with disability from mainstream society.
The inclusion of children with disabilities in educational institutions and fostering the conditions for accessing rights as equal citizens are essential to creating a level playing field for all. The Parliament of India enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009. The act has provisions for ensuring that children with visual impairment, low vision, hearing impairment, leprosy, locomotor disability, mental illness, autism, cerebral palsy and multiple disabilities have the right to study in a regular school environment till they are 18 years old. Through this pioneering legislation, India gave its millions of children the right to free and wholesome education.
However, not only do children with disabilities continue to face hardships in availing their constitutional right, but they are also short-changed on the promise of wholesome education. Many of these children study in ‘special-needs’ schools while others go to mainstream schools. Even in mainstream schools, those with challenges remain excluded. Both these enclaves of ‘special’ and mainstream schools end up isolating children with challenges and estranging them and their peers from the rich experience that they could have gained from having a diverse learning environment.
The disturbing question that remains is: when the law treats children with challenges equally, why is there differential treatment of children with different needs in schools by teachers and classmates? All they need is some extra time, attention and most importantly, a caring attitude. The teachers in our educational institutions are inadequately trained to manage and nurture children with challenges.
We are writing about children with challenges because someone we know is facing this problem. Once my friend began to open up about his problems, I realised the long road I must walk to see the world from his eyes.
Growing up, my friend started speaking late. He was diagnosed as being a slow learner. As a result of being unable to swiftly verbalise his thoughts, he became aggressive. His teachers took his behaviour and hyperactivity in class as a sign of naughtiness. He once confessed that despite not understanding the lesson, he would not question the teacher. He was afraid of being ridiculed by his classmates, for asking the same thing many times. This latent anger often spills over in the use of foul language or getting involved in fights.
His teachers and school authorities often complain about the child’s behaviour towards his parents. The parents have also been warned by the school authorities that if the child does not improve his behaviour, the school will take the strictest possible action against the child. This hostile behaviour of the school and their inability to empathise with my friend is adversely affecting his family as well. The parents feel awkward while talking about their own child due to society demeaning intellectual and developmental challenges. At the individual level, self-stigma is alienating the person with challenges further from his environment and his peers. Affordability, lack of flexibility in curriculum, being bullied in class and not receiving adequate attention from teachers are other contributing factors to this deteriorating situation.
For inclusive education to become a reality, it is essential to build flexibility in the curriculum, sensitise children in mainstream schools and train teachers in transformational pedagogy. We can no longer afford to treat our future workforce as a burden. They might require additional attention and training but it is worth the effort, in order to make our society open and equitable. The last citadel to be breached in creating an inclusive society is that of our minds. For far too long, we have promoted and appreciated ableism. It is essential to transform our patronising thoughts from these positions to one of respect and inclusion.
A strong and inclusive public school system with a vigilant government, media and community, is the only answer for an equal and fair education system. Every school should be audited and certified Right To Education compliant, which means ensuring inclusive education in school. Inclusive education will not be ushered in by having accessible infrastructure, but by ensuring that our teachers develop an inclusive mindset.
Teesha Chugh and Anisha Shekhar are volunteers at Amrit Foundation of India. They are pursuing masters in social work from Amity University and hope to bring about a change in the lives of persons with challenges.