Leave no child behind

Children with disabilities should be given every opportunity to be part of the mainstream. To do this, it is necessary that our education system does not marginalise them, even with good intentions

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - September 04, 2016 12:00 am IST

Inclusive education refers to education for all. The concept includes everyone who is on the margins, and aims to bring them into the mainstream. We no longer talk about integrated education; today, it’s about inclusion.

The case for inclusive education is this: No amount of community awareness can change the attitude of people. It’s only when young people are exposed to each other, see their friends’ assets as well as their weaknesses, that they become better human beings. It’s difficult for older people to change their mindset; this is not so for children. When they mingle with those from diverse backgrounds, they develop into more tolertant people, accepting of differences. And as adults, they grow into that culture of acceptance, to say, “I have no issues hiring a person with special needs in my factory, or in my business”.

Bringing everyone in

As far back as 1986, India’s National Policy in Education had mandated that children with special needs should be included in the mainstream. However, subsequent governments did not allocate funds for it.

Education for all is a global movement. The United Nations played a strong role in fostering inclusive education with its various conventions, including the latest on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In India, a good outcome of the UN initiative was the Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyan (SSA), which the government adopted in the early part of the millennium.

As a policy, the SSA was beautiful. It mandated education for all, and provided children with special needs an opportunity to be in mainstream schools. Further, it led to a jump in teacher training programmes because the government had allocated posts of ‘special teacher’ in every district. From a place of no special teachers, it provided for itinerant teachers who would go from school to school, identifying children with special needs. But while the SSA gave inclusion a headstart, it could have been implemented better.

The Right to Education Act was one step ahead: it made education for all a fundamental right. Inclusive education is no longer an option. However, the government is imposing the Act only on institutions that they own and fund. Any government school needs to fill up 25 per cent of their seats for children from marginalised sections, which also includes children with disabilities. Denying them admission is no longer possible.

Where there’s a way, but no will

The situation is fairly good in Mumbai, where there is money and awareness. The concept has picked up over the past five to six years, with a lot of schools bringing in teachers trained to help children with special needs.

But inclusive education hasn’t caught on as well as in government-run schools, which reach a lot of people, and which, unlike private schools, do not charge high fees. These schools have another inherent advantage: space. Most of their classrooms are lying vacant, as their population of ‘regular’ children wanes – parents from low-income families increasingly prefer to send their children to private schools.

The trouble with government schools is with the curricular transaction: what happens in classrooms has very little to do with meaningful learning. When even a bright child cannot learn there, it is far worse for a child with special needs. Their teachers are not trained to deal with special children.

Infrastructure issues

Often, children with special needs are admitted into regular schools, but there is no infrastructure to support their training or growth. The lack of space is a huge problem in Mumbai. Wheelchair-bound children, particularly, are assigned classes on the ground floor as schools have no lifts or ramps. But for how long can you keep them there?

Also, a child is a child first, and later someone with a disability. She needs to play. But at break time, she is told to sit in class. On sports day, she doesn’t participate like the others. This is not inclusion. You need to adapt to their needs. Perhaps have them lead a march on sports day while someone pushes the wheelchair.

Then there are schools which take in special children due to a mandate, but create a situation whereby parents themselves say, ‘We don’t want our child there’. So the school tells them their child cannot function there, they don’t have a special needs teacher, and that the parents need to get a shadow teacher (one who sits in the class, but for whom parents need to pay; they are not easily available). Ultimately, the mother tags along to class. It’s the worst thing that can happen for both parent and child.

If a school has taken a child in, it needs to also take ownership for him or her. You need to ensure that all your broader educational aims, be they social, emotional, physical, cultural, cognitive or intellectual, are fulfilled for every child.

Universal learning

There is this concept called universal design of learning (UDL). Universal design is something that is good for everybody. Like you have Velcro shoes or unisex clothes. Similarly, universal design of instruction is making a teacher teach in a manner whereby she can address the needs of all the learners in the classroom. So if you have children with visual or hearing

impairment in your classroom, you adapt teaching methods to their needs. You use Braille books or tactile teaching-learning aids; you use sign language or have someone who is proficient in it in your class.

The idea of UDL is to avoid isolating children with special needs from the rest of the class. There are teachers who are using UDL in the classroom without calling it that.

But most schools don’t offer that; they don’t believe in it. Worse, general education teachers are not trained to look at the needs of all learners. They only cater to the average child, and that too not too well.

The Fixes:

Train your teachers: There are ways to resolve these issues. Firstly, B.Ed. general education teachers have to be trained in special education. In India, we have two separate streams. Since the child is in a mainstream school, the responsbility rests with the general

education teacher. If she says, “I have no knowledge of special needs,” that is not fair. Even though the paper in special education is no longer an elective for the general B.Ed. course, what is missing is classroom experience.

Any kind of learning has three aspects: the knowledge component, skill component and the affect, which is about attitude. You’re giving them the knowledge, but if you don’t develop the skill for it, the affect will not change. Training them will inculcate ownership.

Allocate resources wisely, measure outcomes: The government also needs to allocate more money for all the infrastructure and curricular changes.

In the West, resources are freely available to teachers, as the funding comes from the government. That makes a big difference. Here, we’re always looking at things like, can we make that many photocopies, can we send something out for spiral binding?

So resources have to be pumped in, but not blindly. There has to be accountability. After all, this is taxpayers’ money.

State governments need to ensure that teachers are using the training provided to them. Are they making a difference? Are they using UDL? Is there a continued curricular evaluation? How do you measure learning outcomes?

Introduce a ‘plus’ curriculum: In the regular school, you can have what is called the ‘plus’ or ‘hidden’ curriculum. So in case of a visually impaired child, a plus curriculum would comprise learning to read Braille. Similarly, a hearing impaired child needs to understand the sign system, which means translating into signs, things that we read and write. An autistic child needs to learn to understand social situations.

These can easily be introduced in the mainstream, if teachers know about it and are not overloaded. We also need more schools. That means more allocation in education. But we cannot solve those problems; they have to be done at a macro level.

Create support systems:

Mumbai needs more support systems in the form of therapy and remedial centres. A regular school cannot provide an arcade of services; it is not their mandate. Even in western countries, a mainstream school does not provide any kind of therapy. Two types of special children are being addressed in a mainstream school: those with learning disability and autistm. As far as visually impaired children are concerned, in a mainstream school, lesser accommodation may be required. You may need tactile learning material and Braille books. But hearing impaired children face a lot of problems. This is a “hidden disability”: they are quiet and intelligent, but nobody understands that their language is badly affected because they are not able to hear. There is a need to address hearing impaired children’s problems.

Do we need special schools?

As inclusive education takes hold, there will be a reduction in the number of special schools. Already, there are just three special schools in Mumbai for children with visual impairment. Special schools do exist for intellectual disability, but they will also see a slow death. Because if the RTE Act is implemented fully, it will mean an end to them.

The reality though, is that when we say equal opportunity, we need to evaluate equal benefit as well. The focus in our schools is on the curriculum, instead of growing up and learning about the world, it’s about learning your textbook. Till that focus shifts, equal benefit will never accrue to any child. And we’ve seen that in cases where children commit suicide because they are not able to cope with studies.

A severely disabled child who otherwise cannot cope with the mainstream school may benefit from a special school where he feels his needs are being taken care of and has a chance to go out and make friends, live a life.

That said, I do see inclusiveness getting more popular.

Parents may value a special school only from the perspective of the additional services. At some point, children have to be sent out into the world.

Real inclusiveness

Inclusive education works on the premise of collaboration between general and special educators, the management, parents and the general community. Often we see that collaboration is upset in the classroom. When a child with special needs is put in a classroom, which happens to have a special teacher, the general teacher feels the child is not her responsibility. So there’s no ownership of that child. On the other hand, if the special teacher is the only one in that school for children from Class I to X, she cannot do much. At the most you have a counsellor, but then he is not a teacher. So these children are thrown between the counsellor and the special needs teacher. This is inclusion merely in name.

Also, does inclusiveness really carry over into their world? Does it give them the same things, does it prepare them? I run an Information Communication Technology programme for adults with autism. People with autism are known to work very well on computers. Some of them drop out after Class VIII or IX. When we look at them, we see that their schools are not addressing their social skills. They may have learnt academically but have not learnt how to handle themselves in a given situation. Whereas at a similar age, a special school child is much better, because that aspect was consistently and seriously focused on. So if inclusive education is not a wholesome programme, it won’t yield a benefit.

Overall, I’d like to see more acceptance. You can’t just call it ‘inclusive’. You’ve got to be inclusive. You can’t just say, ‘We need an inclusive environment.’ We have to create it, at a day-to-day level, by practising inclusiveness. When you talk about something at a cognitive level but come from a different place in your heart, it doesn’t work. You must believe it will happen.

About the author

Rubina Lal worked at the Post Graduate Department of Special Education, SNDT University, Mumbai, for over 15 years before joining the Suvidya Centre of Special Education as its Head.

Recipient of the Fulbright Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship (2003-04), and the State Best University Teacher’s Award (2011), Ms. Lal has authored two chapters in a recent manual on inclusive education for teachers by UNICEF India, and has contributed to the development of curriculum for teacher education at the national and State level. She is currently Chairperson of the Expert Committee for Autism and Multiple Disabilities, Rehabilitation Council of India, Delhi.

For the complete list of stories in the Fixing Mumbai series, > click here
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