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Making our skies inclusive

Jeeja Ghosh being forced to disembark from a SpiceJet flight for which she had paid and on which she was already seated is the most brilliant evidence yet for why India's schools should be inclusive.

Jeeja has Cerebral Palsy. Her speech can be difficult to understand and she requires assistance with baggage. She also heads the Advocacy unit at one of India's finest institutions — the Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy (IICP) in Kolkata. She is highly educated, with advanced degrees in Social Work, one from Leeds University in the UK, and has travelled widely for work and pleasure.

But on Sunday, Jeeja came up against deep-seated ignorance and fear in the form of a pilot named Utprabh Tiwari. Captain Tiwari, who clearly never attended an inclusive school and has no experience with the wide range of abilities and limitations present in the human race, saw a passenger he couldn't make sense of.

In his world — and you can't blame him because he is a victim of limitation himself — Jeeja Ghosh was an unknown quantity and a potential hazard for the safety of his flight. He behaved as he thought best, given his responsibilities, and one can only feel pity for him. He may have known how to fly a jet plane, but he lacked the most basic understanding of human development, diversity, ways of moving, adaptation, determination and courage.

No space for difference

Unfortunately for all of us, Captain Tiwari got the same education most children in India receive: it was, judging by the results, narrow, myopic and highly conventional. It was an education which teaches children that everyone should look and act the same.

Because Indian education is exclusive. Children with disabilities are welcome only on paper. Ask any parent of a child with special needs. Ask any adult who has survived the system. Ask Jeeja Ghosh.

Including children with special needs in mainstream classrooms is not only their constitutional right, it is the only possible way to create the kind of world we all want to live in.

Typical children who grow up in inclusive classrooms learn — at the very least — that disability is nothing to be afraid of. They learn that people may look different, yet can still be their friends. That a person who can't speak can still communicate. That you can't judge a book by its cover and that everyone has both strengths and weaknesses.

Special needs kids who grow up in inclusive classrooms learn to have higher expectations for their lives. They stop apologising for their difficulties and begin to allow themselves to dream about their futures rather than dread them. They start to see their classmates as friends and allies rather than potential tormentors. They discover that the world is not a cold and hostile place but a place where people support and help one another.

Let's replay the Jeeja Ghosh story, this time with a pilot who had attended an inclusive school — right from the age of three. There was a girl in his class who had Down Syndrome and a boy in the class ahead of him who had Cerebral Palsy. There was also a boy who was smarter than any of them and who could tell you anything you needed to know about dinosaurs. It turned out later he had Autism, but no one knew or cared then.

So there's the pilot standing just outside the cockpit, greeting the passengers as they board. He sees Jeeja walking down the boarding ramp and he recognises the distinctive CP gait. His heart lifts a little remembering the first friend he ever had with CP — Roshan, Class One — and he gives Jeeja an extra broad smile as he welcomes her to Flight 803 to Goa.

“Welcome aboard!” he says. “Any help we can offer you?” He checks her boarding pass and sees that she is seated way back in Aisle 35. Though as the pilot, seating arrangements aren't part of his job, he asks the head stewardess to see if she can find a seat closer to the front so Jeeja doesn't have to walk so far. “In Business Class if need be,” he adds quietly.

Unforgettable

Sound unlikely? I will never forget the Irish steward on a British Airways flight from Delhi to London who helped me board with my daughter Moy Moy who has severe special needs — as he was leading us to our seats in Economy, he noticed she was drooling and without a moment's hesitation, he wiped her chin for her. As he settled us in our seats, he said, “I don't think you'll be comfortable enough here. Let me see what I can do.” A few moments later, he returned and moved us into Business Class.

The man sitting next to us there, who had paid good money for his fancy seat, could have objected or at least made us feel awkward and unwelcome but instead he did everything possible to help us, including looking after Moy whenever I went to the bathroom.

The steward, I found out later, had a younger sister with special needs. My co-passenger had attended an inclusive school.

Captain Utprabh Tiwari wasn't born wanting to discriminate against Jeeja Ghosh. He was taught to.

Want to change the world? Start with teaching the children.

The author is the Executive Director of the Dehradun-based Latika Roy Foundation working with people with special needs. Email: jo@latikaroy.org.


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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 12:17:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/making-our-skies-inclusive/article2931621.ece

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