Everyone’s in!

Divya Choudary

We all know that every child is unique and different. They have different abilities, learn in different ways, and at different paces. Inclusive, learning-friendly, and barrier-free environments should therefore be created in every school and community throughout the world so that all children will be enabled to develop to their full academic, social, emotional, and physical potentials. It is important to remember that a child’s academic potential cannot be developed separately from her/his social, emotional and physical potential, as they are interdependent aspects of a child’s development. – “Teaching Children with Disabilities in Inclusive Settings”, UNESCO Bangkok, 2009

The purpose of education is the same for all students – to build confidence, to learn the skills and tools necessary to make it in the world outside and to give back to the society. However, students can only do all this, when they feel valued, when they feel like they belong to the school and to the society.

“I felt isolated in school,” says Shravya, a 17-year-old with total visual impairment. “A teacher once got upset because I didn’t stand up when she entered the classroom. And sometimes when question papers had diagrammatic questions it would’ve been nice if the teachers had replaced them or even disregarded them when calculating the marks even though it would have meant additional work for them.”

According to the UNESCO guidelines, inclusion is about benefitting all learners, and at times that means making certain provisions for some children so as to not exclude them. For children with disabilities, it would mean providing additional support within the regular school system.

Kriya’s mother Kanchan points out, “If you ask a regular school for any extra aid or special teachers, the child will not get admission.” Her daughter, like Shravya, is visually impaired. Kanchan had made the decision to send her daughter to a regular school rather than a special one because she believed that Kriya would benefit more from being a part of the wider social system from an early age. While Kriya’s school does not provide any special teacher for those with impairments, they do have ayahs who help the younger children. Exams are conducted with the help of a scribe. “Teachers read out aloud what is written in the textbooks or on the board and give students more time when they need it. This works, because we have no expectations from the teachers to do more than this.” To meet Kriya’s other needs, Kanchan did a paraprofessional course learning Braille and cane-training and with the help of software like JAWS (screen reading software) Kriya is comfortable using a computer at home. “It is only when it comes to sports and some extra-curricular activities that Kriya cannot participate.”

Sai Teja had studied in a special school for a few years and his mother Madhumati was trying to get him admission in a regular school. As she had a degree in ‘Special education in visual impairment’ she was comfortable teaching her son at home but wanted him to be able to interact with other children so as to promote his social skills. Children in special schools are often seen as socially segregated from their peers and she wanted to make the transition smooth for her son. Sai Teja was a good student, however many schools in the city turned him down even though they did not request additional support.

Now, Sai Teja is in a regular college and enjoys being a “normal” student. “On the first day, I walked him around the college to orient him to the environment. Now he manages on his own,” says his mother. About his experience in a regular college, Sai Teja says, “I really enjoy it! I’m not treated differently. I have my friends and I am good at my studies.”

Shravya also finds herself enjoying high school. “When others go to play sports, I have the option of learning music. The teachers here are very supportive and encourage participation, creativity, and group work. I’ve also made some good friends here.”

All children with impairments – physical, emotional, or learning – need academic, physical, and psychological support. Inclusive education occurs when the whole school is encouraged to become more adaptable and inclusive in its day-to-day educational practices. Teachers can make a difference in the social inclusion experiences of students by encouraging and facilitating peer interaction amongst students with and without disabilities. Collaboration plays an important role in inclusive classrooms fostering an awareness and understanding of people and their different needs. Students are sensitized towards others feelings, learn how to communicate better and involve others in conversation and activities, value each person’s uniqueness and learn to be comfortable with differences.

Meena’s child goes to a regular school in the mornings and to a special learning centre afterward. Although most of her son’s scholastic learning takes place in the evenings, Meena believes that it is in the regular school that her son has learned how to interact and communicate with non-autistic children. Socializing with other students has even had a positive impact on the way her son shares his meals and behaves during assembly.

In classrooms where tables are attached to the chairs, often left-handed students are forced to write with the notebooks on their laps, or find a place where the desk to their left is empty. As part of physical support for students, schools could provide left-handed desks, install ramps for students on wheel-chairs, sign posts and ensure that the canteen and toilets are accessible. These are simple issues that can be easily addressed by schools. Schools can also help by offering some flexibility in the curriculum so as to allow teaching methods that make learning more accessible to all students. It goes without saying that schools must first implement a “zero rejection policy for children with special needs.”

Another parent was pleased when the school agreed to conduct oral exams for her child who was comfortable speaking the language but seemed to have some difficulty while writing. While the parents are unsure as to how long this will be allowed, they appreciate the schools’ efforts in giving their child the time she needs to overcome this difficulty.

The World Health Organization estimates that one in 10 children in developing countries has special needs in education. Isn’t it clear then that there is a great need to train teachers in specific disabilities? The Bachelor in Education programme in India does have a course on educating children with special needs. But to what extent do they put this training into daily practice? Often, school teachers do not feel equipped to teach children with disabilities and it rests with parents to train themselves with the necessary skills. When teachers believe teaching a child with special needs is not their responsibility, it is very easy for the child to feel, and in fact to be, marginalized. For a classroom to be truly inclusive, teachers must take responsibility for all the students and put in the effort to create and present material that is accessible to and enriching for all of them. Teachers can find ways to work with other educators and parents to help students whether with learning impairments like dyslexia or physical impairments like deafblindness and in the process develop their own skills (Braille, sign-language or speech and language therapy). When teachers, parents, and peers have a positive attitude and are motivated and involved in the process, the sense of “inclusivity” will become an intrinsic part of the school.

Inclusive education is not just about benefiting those with disabilities. It is an opportunity to improve the teaching and learning processes for teachers and students and achieve the goals of education for all the students.

*Some names have been changed on request.

1. Teaching children with disabilities in inclusive settings – UNESCO
2. Educating children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms – Ashima Das – TISS
3. Children with Disabilities in Private Inclusive Schools in Mumbai: Experiences and Challenges – Ashima Das (TISS), Dr. Ruth Kattumuri (LSE).

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