Ramya Kannan and Priscilla Jebaraj

CHENNAI: According to a government order, a school has no business to turn any student away. But whether integration into the mainstream, especially of disabled students, is smooth and beneficial for the student is still a matter of debate.

Educationists and special teachers point to the multitude of factors that will have a bearing on the success of mainstreaming, including the age at which intervention has begun for a child, the skills he or she has been able to master, the degree of disability and response from the mainstream schools.

“Our intention is to integrate children into the mainstream irrespective of degree of disability, we make an exception only for those who have epileptic seizures,” says Rekha Ramachandran, chairperson, Down Syndrome Association of Tamil Nadu.

She adds that they have had a good success rate, with only one out of 10 persons dropping out over the past 10 years. The key however, she adds, is good early intervention. Dipti Bhatia, deputy director, Vidya Sagar, a special school which encourages mainstream education, says that both the disabled student and his/her classmates at a mainstream school will find it easier to adapt at a younger age. “The older you get, the more entrenched mindsets you will find,” she says.

Meera Suresh of Bala Vidyalaya, the school for young deaf children, says they take children even as young as 42 days old, in order to stimulate the child’s residual hearing and help with speech. The students are at the school until they are 5 or 6 years old and then they move on to mainstream schools. While 95 per cent of their students are able to enter the mainstream, specific problems regarding the insistence on learning two languages in some schools, exist.

Ms.Bhatia admits that there are a number of challenges involved in mainstreaming students with disabilities. “With little ones, the questions are direct: ‘Why are you sitting in that weird way? Why haven’t you done your homework?” she says. With older students, active bullying can be a problem.

Parthasarathy Srinivas Dheepakh, who has motor disabilities due to cerebral palsy, made the transition at an early age. In Class V, he moved from Vidya Sagar to Jai Gopal Garodia Hindu Vidyalaya Matriculation Higher Secondary School. “It took me some time to get used to a different environment. In a special school, there is individual attention to each and every student. You don’t get that in a mainstream school,” he says.

The lack of individual attention that a student is used to in their more protective smaller environments is a key factor, says Dr. Ramachandran. “We never advise our children to go into private schools where there is a crowd in class…50- 60 children. We find schools that are known to pay better attention to the child. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme has been a big boon for our kids who need to be mainstreamed.”

However, Aruna Rathnam, educationist, says that might not always be possible. “Sending a child to a mainstream school is good. But that is not all. Will the child’s unique need be met in a crowd? There are bound to be problems with clubbing people of different disabilities together. What is the kind of integration possible in the districts where there in no intervention in the first place?” she asks.

“The important thing is that the teacher must always be aware of the child. While other students are copying from the board, she will have to provide another option, maybe a worksheet, for the child,” she says. Group activity is ideal, since it allows students to share work according to their own strengths and weaknesses. “It benefits everyone, not only the disabled child.”

Under the SSA programme, there is a special component for inclusive education, being implemented largely by non-governmental organisation, says M.P.Vijayakumar, honorary advisor, SSA. It involves a whole bouquet of activities- identification of disability, providing early intervention, integrating into the schools and providing home-based care if necessary.