Lack of inclusive education and trained personnel force 26 lakh special children out of mainstream education.
“Nobody accepted my child into a mainstream school,” said Sudha Madhavi, whose child, Raju* has multiple disabilities – epilepsy, autism and a learning disability. She had to teach her son at home all by herself. “I am alone fighting for my child,” she added. Teachers have said that he cannot sit in one place, could not grasp what was being taught and that he tends to disturb others. “What can I do, I have to accept the social norms right?” she asked.
While Raju eventually managed to study in a vocational school, not every Child With a Disability (CWD) gets admission in mainstream educational institutions. In fact, out of 78,64,636 CWD in India, three-fourth of them who are at the age of five years, do not go to any educational institution, according to a report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Additionally, 12 percent of CWDs have dropped out of school and 27 percent of CWDs have never attended any educational institution.
“My child was not accepted into the two mainstream schools that were near my house in KG Halli,” said the mother of a child with a disability, who did not wish to be named. “The school authorities said that she was not normal so they cannot give admission to her,” she said.
Her daughter has had cerebral palsy since birth. It is a group of disorders that affects muscle movement and posture. Her mother recalls that she scored well in the entrance tests that she wrote for acquiring admission into the second grade in the school. However, the school management was not ready to take her in as they did not want to take responsibility for her child. They could not give special attention to the child as she was not “normal,” she said. The mother asked for her daughter to be enrolled for just one month in these schools but the administration refused and asked her to enroll her child in a special school. “They said that they will not even enroll her in the school for even one day,” she said. She did not try to enroll her child elsewhere after that because of the embarrassment that she had to face.
Sometimes, the problem starts with accepting that a child has some special needs. Atleast, that is what happened with Vushra Mahmoud. Her son, Mahmoud Fizarullah has had epilepsy since birth. Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder that causes seizures or some periods of unusual behaviour. It affects about 50 million people worldwide and around 10 million people in India. Despite this prevalence, we as parents couldn’t recognise and accept that he has a problem, said Mahmoud. He had his first epileptic episode when he was just seven years old. It took them around six months after that episode to figure out that he has a problem.
“Once, he was seizing for an entire day and that is when we took him to the hospital and realized that he has a problem,” she recalled. “Indian parents usually find it difficult to accept that their child has an issue,” she said. It is easier to accept if the child has a physical disability, but not a mental disability. “It is completely treated as madness and completely unacceptable,” she added.
Fizarullah was enrolled into a mainstream school initially. However, the school authorities did not try to understand his disability. “There is something wrong with your child,” is what they would say to his mother. They dismissed his disability by reducing it to just mischief, naughtiness and not wanting to study, his mother said. The school failed him from his classes on multiple occasions as well. There were days when he had seizure episodes in school but no one came to help him. “Your child has a problem so do not come here,” is what they were met with when her child had a long seizure in school one day. Then came the last straw in the fifth standard when the school principal forced him to drop out. “They told us that they do not want to be responsible if something happens to my child,” she said.
Just like Fizarullah, although some children find a place in mainstream schools, they find it difficult to learn in such an environment. “I had to personally go to the school and make the teacher understand as to how to help my child,” said Sharda, parent of a child with an intellectual disability. In fact, around 90 percent of parents and caregivers faced obstacles to learning, especially during the pandemic, according to a report by inclusive education.
The learning environment, which is supposed to be a safe space for them, becomes their bane. The children have to deal with bullying issues from their peers as well who might not understand how they are different from other children, said Kavitha Nair, a special education consultant.
“Once my child came home from school and he was completely naked as his peers in the school were bullying him,” said Mahmoud. His school uniform was torn and only his underwear was visible, she said. Other children in the school would scratch him with a pencil or a geometry box tool. “He would come home with all these marks. In fact, I have pictures of all these, to store as memories,” she said as she hurriedly scrolled through the pictures on her phone. However, the school never addressed these issues nor did they punish the students who caused harm to him. “They are just playing with each other. You have to take care of your child, he is the one who is not studying well,” is what the school administration told Fizarullah’s mother. “Eventually, we realised that the problem was with us only and we accepted it and took him out of the school,” said Mahmoud.
Enrolment statistics of CWDs in schools at the national level as well shows that while there has been an increase in the number of CWDs enrolled in classes I, II, III and IV, the increase has not been sustained in later classes. The laws that govern education in the country form a part of the problem. While every child in India has a right to education under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act), the education of children with disabilities in particular has been left out of the legal system.
The problem also lies in understanding the kind of disability that a child has, said Rustom Irani, a disability rights expert. “We still have not arrived at a specification at what kind of disability exists,” he said. Even if some special children finish studying in mainstream schools, they might find it difficult to enter a college institution that doesn’t have the same comfortable ecosystem that the school created for them, he added. Infrastructure is not the same across all campuses which will make it difficult for them to move to a different institution. “This is what happened to me,” he said while recalling that he wanted to pursue film studies in India but he eventually went abroad as that was the only option left for him.
There is a lack of clarity in the existing laws that govern education for persons with disabilities. For example, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWD Act) states that educational institutes should “provide reasonable accommodation according to the individual’s requirements and provide necessary support, individualised or otherwise, in environments that maximise academic and social development consistent with the goal of full inclusion.” However, the terms ‘reasonable accommodation’, ‘individualised support’ and ‘full inclusion’ have not been elaborated which leaves no scope for its implementation, according to a report.
School policies should be revised to be as inclusive as it can be and should involve all the stakeholders in the process and steps toward creating an inclusive school and environment, said Nair. Additionally, authorities should be educated about what inclusion means and the multiple levels involved. While implementing the policies, necessary changes need to be made in the the school environment, she said.
However, educational institutions in the country are not designed to cater to the needs of children with special needs. A study conducted by Samarthyam NGO showed that schools in Hyderabad, Telangana did not have accessible toilets and entrance, information and communication systems, accessible route, ramp and drinking water facility. The NGO also found that infrastructure in schools was considered unsafe for CWDs due to lack of expertise and awareness about access standards among construction personnel.
In Karnataka, research shows that special educators in mainstream schools stressed on the need for disability wise training and subject specific resources that cater to them. Additionally, around 52 schools in the state did not have disabled-friendly toilets, 83 schools needed more ramps and 88 needed more handrails.
It is a Catch 22 situation, said Irani. “Mainstream schools say that they do not have many special children enrolling for admission and hence, they do not have inclusive infrastructure,” he said. But, parents of special children say that they cannot enroll them in these schools because of lack of such infrastructure, he added
In fact, the lack of trained special educators in mainstream schools adds to the problem of lack of inclusive education. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis they may have, special needs children face numerous challenges in mainstream schools starting from not getting admission in a school that is typically mainstream, said Nair.
Additionally, the school usually has no experience in handling such children, she added. If they do manage to get admission in a school that is mainstream and inclusive, then they have other varied challenges. “Sometimes teachers are not equipped to handle these kids since it is not exactly taught to them during their training,” she said. Most of the time, mainstream schools have inadequate special education resources such as special educators, resource rooms, resource materials ( since they are generalized resources and may/ may not cater to their specific individual needs), she added.
Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme, the objective was to provide inclusive education by employing five Inclusive Education Resource Teachers (IERT) per block. However, special educators have pointed out that there are fewer trained teachers than required. “Normal teachers only teach these children because there is no sensitisation,” said Kalpagiri, a special educator.
While some might declare special schools as a solution to this growing problem, parents of special children have faced harrowing challenges in such schools as well. Mahmoud mentioned that they were ignorant in the beginning and did not know about special schools. After multiple experiences of embarrassment and rejection from mainstream school authorities, she lost trust in schools and medicine as well that could help her son.
“Special schools were trying to make a business as well. They only use some instruments which are for display purposes,” she said. Three and a half lakhs rupees for three months. That is how much she invested in enrolling her son into a special school but there was no improvement, she said. Teachers in the special school wanted to indulge him in outside activities, without knowing the consequences of it. “He came back home and had a seizure for a long time after he was made to play football in the hot weather,” she said. Eventually, she had to drop him out of the special school as well.
Authorities from schools need to become inclusive to all learners possible, from top level management, educators/ teachers, support staff, parents and other students in the school, said Nair. They need to understand that all learners are different, but still alike in their fundamental right to get their education, she said. “Monitoring and improvising the policies based on the actual practices and challenges through feedback mechanism is vital to have successful inclusive practices,” she added.
“Being inclusive is not a one day program but an ongoing and constantly evolving process. It would require them to have the courage and determination to break away from traditional thinking and practices, be unconventional and creative about finding new solutions to the age-old problems,” she added.
Currently, the school that Fizurallah is enrolled in is only till 8th grade. His mother wonders about where her son will learn after this.