Inclusivity is every disabled child’s fundamental right

Till every child is in school and every school admits at least 25% children from the backward classes, we cannot say that it will not work.


Till every child is in school and every school admits at least 25% children from the backward classes, we cannot say that inclusive education will not work.

Raheen and her mother Nazeema Balbale outside Raheen’s School

As a child, ‘disability’ seemed like the easy way out to me. I often visited the special schools where my mother used to teach. At the age of seven, it seemed like the perfect school. I could comprehend what students twice my age were learning, they went on picnics and field trips more often, and I could never understand why my school wouldn’t allow us to do art and craft all day long. My school had 6 periods of academics daily, and one period of an extracurricular activity. Mom’s school did the exact opposite.

Of course, I knew the students had something called a ‘disability’, but the problems did not seem too different from mine and many of my other classmates. My spellings were atrocious, I couldn’t recognize colours, my handwriting hasn’t changed since I was four, I suffered from low self-esteem and behaviour problems, and academically, I remember just about scraping through school. These children had the exact same problems. Some didn’t look disabled, and those whose disability was seen, could do nearly everything but with a little bit of help. I envied them for getting the easy way out of the same problems. Twenty years later, when I meet them, I see the difference, and it makes me feel very lucky, but also a wee bit guilty. Did I belong to a special school or did they deserve a regular school? My answer to this question is the first and the strongest reason as to why I believe in inclusive education.

Our decision to include all the students of Saraswati Mandir Trust into regular schools didn’t occur to us just one fine day. For the last twenty years, we have been practicing it in our own special way. It was only in 2010 that we could preach and practice it in public. The Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights & Full Participation) Act, 1995, was our first ray of hope which gave children with disability certain rights, including those of inclusive education. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 came next, and not only reinforced the rights of children with disability, but also guaranteed every child, without any discrimination, the right to free and compulsory education.

Before the RTE legislation, we could manage to include a handful of students into regular schools, but today, schools cannot and do not deny any child his/her right to education. It would be illegal to do so. The constitution gives us certain rights, the government enforces them, but it is our duty to practice them. In the case of education, the state and the government have attempted to play their part, and as citizens we must practice it before we criticize it. Till every child is in school and every school admits at least 25% children from the backward classes, we cannot say that it will not work. It may not work, but I’m sure that it will do more good than harm. With this belief, at SMT, we will give it a shot, and attempt to include all our students. Not because we believe it is right, but because it is their fundamental right.

I have grown-up with disability around me. I’ve seen it in my family, school, college, and of course, in my mother’s workplace, which I now share. Disability was normal and a way of life, but never a reason for a group of people to be marginalized. It irritated me when people questioned inclusion and stared with sympathy while I walked the streets with my visually impaired aunt or our students from SMT. It took me time to realise that amongst 1.2 billion Indians, only 1.3% are disabled. Not many people are exposed to disability. Hundreds of children are home bound because families are either embarrassed of them, or society makes them feel conscious. These children too have a heart to feel and emote, a stomach to feed, and lungs to enjoy fresh air. Then why do we doubt that children with disabilities deserve a school just like those without disability? A special school prepares them for a special world, not reality. Parents and special educators may give special care to children with disability but as adults they will have to fight their own battles, just like any of us. Their disability prevents them from doing certain things. We need to provide the resources and encouragement to overcome their impairment and not reinforce or worsen it further. It requires hard work, commitment, civic sense and a sense of social responsibility on our part.

It’s been three years since I started including children from our schools into mainstream schools. A handful have blended into the system so well that you cannot tell they have a ‘disability’. When Raheen was admitted to TULIP School, her teachers said she was like a vegetable. She couldn’t walk, talk, eat, or even stand straight. She was not toilet trained and had several behavioural problems. The teachers at TULIPS worked very hard with her. There was progress, but it was slow. In 2010, when we integrated her into New English School, the improvement was dramatic, and much faster than what we saw in our school.

Similarly Ayush, a boy with Down syndrome, has always studied in a regular school. Today he is 15 years and studying in grade nine. Academically, he doesn’t perform well, but in comparison to other children with disability, his communication skill are extremely strong, and he is good at basic reading, writing and mathematics. Most importantly, he is independent in his daily activities and will not be considered a liability to his family or caretakers. Only a regular school could help Raheen and Ayush adjust to a regular world.

Inclusion is the fruit of a long term investment. It requires tremendous patience, hard work, commitment and faith in the child concerned. Our society hasn’t internalized the idea of inclusion and the task can be very challenging and sometimes discouraging. Less than 50% of the students we have included have remained in the mainstream. Peer pressure, competitive academics, and poor infrastructure and resources are some reasons why children with disability are unable to cope in mainstream schools. However, parents have the right to change this and insist on inclusive education for their child. Make sure special schools are the last resort and not your only hope.

I am sure that our work towards inclusion of children with disability may not create a national movement but it will at least sow the seeds for one. It may go unnoticed but so will the disability of those who we have been included.

Also read:

Living with autism: from the eyes of a teacher

Autism therapy: time we separated the essentials from the add-ons

 


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pallavi Lotlikar is a Project Manager with Saraswati Mandir Trust, a non-profit that works towards inclusive education for special children in Mumbai. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pallavi Lotlikar is a Project Manager with Saraswati Mandir Trust, a non-profit that works towards inclusive education for special children in Mumbai. more

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