Accessible curriculum, teacher training a must in schools, say activists

Poorva Subramanium is barely 10 years old, but has learnt an important lesson in life — not to trouble her parents when they come out of the schools they have been visiting these days. “It is frustrating. No school wants to admit her. She is good at shapes, colours and can also read,” says her mother, showing her report card from a special school here that deems her, ‘Fit to be admitted in a mainstream school'.

“The special school that she studies in has assured us that they will get her into a school nearby that admits special children. We wanted to try other private schools too, but the response has been bad,” says the mother.

Poorva is one of five children with cerebral palsy in a class of twenty who have received this report, but it looks like she might have to wait for a few more years to be part of a mainstream school.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act that makes elementary education a right for all children between the ages of 6 and 14, promises to revolutionise the education sector. Tamil Nadu's rules for implementing the Act makes them eligible for admission to a private, neighbourhood school by including children with disabilities in ‘disadvantaged groups', under the provision to reserve 25 per cent seats. However, inclusion of students with disabilities will warrant certain specific provisions, including an accessible curriculum, teacher training programmes and sports, say activists. “Most of the children who have been integrated into mainstream schools are happy in their new surroundings because there is so much new to learn. But a few come back too, citing a lack of basic understanding from new peers and teachers. One girl recently came back to us because she could not access the toilets in the mainstream school,” points out Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance, Tamil Nadu.

This is where home-schooling could help. The Persons With Disabilities Act also talks this. Activists, though, fear it might be seen as an alternative to regular schooling, rather than a preparatory system.

In Chennai, home-based education is not all that popular. About 200 children with disabilities are enrolled in a day care centres run by the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA). Many of them have multiple disabilities, including neurological disorders, cerebral palsy, visual disabilities and physical disabilities. Special educators and physiotherapists are sent to the children in their homes and an annual survey determines how many of them are actually fit to be put into mainstream schools. “The inclusion rate is minimal because most parents feel there is not much need to educate the child, especially when he can't move at all,” says Gayathri Prabhu, a special educator, formerly with the SSA.

However, disability activists emphasise the need to see home-based education purely as a supplement. Otherwise, children with disabilities, who could be integrated into mainstream schools, would end up staying at home. In Karnataka, home-based education has not been accepted and is used only as a preparation for schooling. In States including Himachal Pradesh, children educated at home are collected together in one centre and later integrated into a regular school.

“There is a lot of ambiguity about whether home-schooling will fit into the scheme of the RTE Act and if so how, and what happens to those in rural areas,” says Praveen Rajagopalan, a special educator and parent of a child with multiple disabilities.

Mr. Rajagopalan points out that in developed countries, including the U.S., 49 out of 50 states regulate home-based education and education providers need to file a ‘declaration of intent' and follow certain procedures. “What kind of curriculum would they have under home-based education? What would be the standard and how would it be regulated,” he asks.

And then there are special schools. A 2008 UNESCO report on inclusive education in India indicates that close to 30 per cent of the country's children with special needs were out of school. Most special schools are in cities, while 70 per cent of these children live in rural areas.

Special schools will warrant more attention in light of the RTE Act. In order to do that, policy makers might have to reflect on certain administrative procedures, say activists. Ms. Sadasivan says the RTE Act leaves out special schools which come under the NGO sector. “Moreover, these schools come under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and not the Ministry of Human Resource Department. It is like washing away all responsibility,” she adds.

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