Inclusive or Special needs education: The debate continues

It is necessary to clearly define what constitutes special needs of children in order to formulate targeted policies because the question is whether there should be separate special needs schools or children with special needs should be part of the inclusive education agenda.

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In India, there are 27 million people with special needs in a population of 1.2 billion. According to the Census 2011, only 61 percent of children with special needs (CWSN) aged 5–19 years attended educational institutions of any kind. This is what we know from the official data but several others are undocumented due to societal stigma, lack of resources and infrastructural deficit or simply false or no diagnosis.

It becomes necessary to clearly define what constitutes special needs of children in order to formulate targeted and accurate policies.

These difficulties can be overlapping and multi-dimensional – physical difficulties can affect a child’s physical functioning, mobility or stamina; respiratory disorders, blindness or epilepsy; mental difficulties include dyslexia, dyspraxia and communication disorders such as stuttering or speech difficulties caused by autism and emotional and behavioural difficulties include anxiety, OCD, panic disorders, etc.

As per Unified District Information System for Education (2015-16), 22.86 lakh CWSN are enrolled at elementary level of schooling.

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Since misdiagnosis can prolong the problem and further affect the mental and physical health of the child, special needs of the children need to be recognised correctly for an appropriate pedagogy to be applied.

Here, an important role is played by the school counsellors who interact with students on a regular basis and can discover certain patterns of behaviour that the family may miss. Therefore, it becomes crucial for families to be aware and reduce denial behaviour.

Often the question arises, should there be separate special needs schools or CWSN should be part of the inclusive education agenda?

“In the ongoing PIL of Rajneesh Kumar Pandey vs Union of India (2016), the Supreme Court in October 2017 observed that CWSN need to have special teachers as well as special schools.”

This view met with certain criticism citing it to be against children’s right to inclusive education as it underplays equality.

Recall that Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education and the Education 2030 Framework for Action emphasise inclusion and equity as laying the foundations for quality education.

Sudesh Mukhopadhyay, a professor at the National University of Education Planning and Administration which deals with research in planning and management of education, presented her views to the SC in the aforesaid PIL and said, “It has been proven in a study that when students with special needs study in the same environment with other children, that benefits the other group of students too for multi-sensory teaching methods enhance the quality of learning.”

University of Virginia’s Professor James M. Kauffman who has written extensively on special needs education has said that inclusive special education is the right to an appropriate education that meets children’s specific needs. “This is considered more important than the right to be educated alongside their mainstream peers,” he stated in the book.

A multi-dimensional, multi- stakeholder approach needs to be developed to effectively deal with the special needs of the children. Rekha Vijayakar, Director of NGO ADAPT has pointed out in one of her interviews that “inclusion does not mean just admitting a child in school, but also making sure the child is comfortable” in the environment and learns to the best of one’s ability. She is of the opinion that “the onus lies on the schools” to make sure that the child is socially accepted by counselling the peers and their parents.

Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Rs. 3000 per child per annum is allocated for the interventions related to education of CWSN. Also, transport and escort facilities are provided to CWSN under the programme to facilitate their access to a neighbourhood school.

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While the Right to Education Act 2009 vouches for inclusion, the Persons with Disability Act 2016 outlines responsibilities of educational institutes to promote and facilitate inclusive education. The Act requires schools to admit students without discrimination and provide infrastructure and academic support like suitable pedagogical methods and other measures to ensure academic and social participation and development.

Vasudha Prakash, Founder-Director of V-Excel Educational Trust, a registered charitable trust that has reached over 35,000 individuals with special needs across urban and rural areas, said in one of her interviews, “Now schools have no choice but to become inclusive. No child can be rejected based on a disability, as it is their legal right to be part of an inclusive school.”

“Some states have also taken quality initiatives like the Delhi Government has asked the special educators in government-run and aided schools to prepare an IEP or Individual Education Plan for every disabled child in their care.”

District authorities of Sirsa, Haryana in the form of Umang Project have set up tab-labs in various schools. Under this project, tablets have been installed with pre-defined educational content for the visually and intellectually impaired. The state government has also installed ‘Braille Me’ devices in Disha School which works for children with autism, cerebral palsy and visual and intellectual impairment.

Meanwhile, CBSE is planning to introduce sign language as a subject and computer-based tests, attendance waivers and flexible subject selection options for students with special needs.

“Ensuring that each individual has an equal opportunity for educational progress remains a challenge worldwide but there are many best practices to learn from and emulate.”

For example, in Finland, all schools have a full-time special education teacher who works part-time with about 23 per cent of students, as well as a group of staff that meet bi-weekly to discuss students’ comportment in class. In essence, the classroom setting should fit the needs of all the children.

Therefore, it becomes essential that the government provides proper infrastructure, increases budgetary provisions on education, provides study modules and takes initiatives like teacher training programmes, peer, family and society sensitisation drives.