Children with disability have as much right to education as anyone else. And it is the duty of schools to provide for them. With the World Disability Day behind us, an appeal by JO CHOPRA.

Today, with the World Disability Day just behind us (December 3), I'd like to keep it simple. I'd like to keep it short. And I'd really like to keep it sweet.

Simple and short I can manage. But sweet? . . . Well, as the song says: “Two out of three ain't bad.”

If I told you I have three children and that one of them has a disability, what would you say to me? What would you ask?

You might say “Wow, that must be challenging.” You might ask, “What kind of extra care does she require?”

And what if I answered you: “Oh, it's not challenging at all. I just pretend she doesn't exist.” Or: “Extra care? How should I know? Do I look like an expert in disability? I just ignore her. It's working out great.”

What kind of a mother would that make me? What would you think about a person who talked that way about her own child?

Forgive me for being blunt, but this is precisely what our schools are doing regarding children with special needs.

Schools throughout India act as if they have an option, as if only some children are our responsibility, as if the right to exclude children based on who they are and what they can do actually exists.

Disability is the last frontier of discrimination. There are many forms of discrimination practised throughout the world — against women, gays, and the poor. Against people of the wrong religion, the wrong colour, the wrong caste or class. But civilised people agree that such discrimination is wrong and the legal system backs them up. Discrimination against people with disability is the only one enshrined in law. And it is the ultimate discrimination: While it is illegal to abort a baby because she is female, if an unborn baby has a disability, it is not only allowed, it is expectedthat the child will be killed.

Climate of intolerance

Given such a climate of non-acceptance and intolerance of disability (even when the people involved are innocent babies), it is hardly surprising that the same climate prevails in our schools.

I acknowledge the fear and the uncertainty. I know that it's frightening for teachers and principals to contemplate teaching a child who cannot hear or cannot see or cannot walk; I know it's hard to think about how to educate a child with a mental handicap. I can hear them now: “I'm no expert. I wasn't trained for this. I don't even know where to begin.”

Believe me, no mother — and I speak from experience — was an expert when that baby with special needs was put into her arms. No father had a clue how he was going to cope when he got the news that his daughter was deaf or his son was blind.

But we quickly became experts. We did it because we had to. I know parents who are uneducated in any traditional sense, yet who are confident authorities on Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Autism.

As parents, we quickly learned what was necessary for our children and we just as quickly became very competent in doing it. And the funny thing is: our lives changed for the better because of the new skills we developed and we became better parents to all our children.

We aren't asking for praise or approval. We are simply doing our duty. Every child has the right to life and the chance to grow to her fullest potential and as parents, it is our responsibility to provide it.

As a society, we are harsh and critical toward parents who refuse to fulfill that role. We would have no sympathy for a mother or a father who shrugged off their responsibility, claiming lack of qualification or interest or patience. No excuses where duty to children is concerned.

Imperatives

Likewise, every child in this great country has the right to an education and it is the responsibility of our schools to provide it. In addition to being a moral imperative, it is also the law. Schools do not have the right to refuse to educate children. No excuses here either.

Parents of children with disability become experts because they have no option. Teachers, Principals: the same thing should be true of you. Begin today and by next year you will find that you know more about disability and special needs than you ever dreamed possible. You will be experts too.

The question is not whether we should practise inclusion. The question is how. The question is when.

How? By beginning. When? Right now.

Come to think of it, that sounds pretty sweet.

Jo Chopra is the Executive Director of the Latika Roy Foundation (www.latikaroy.org), a Dehradun-based resource centre for people with special needs.

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