When Vincy D'Silva learnt her son had dyslexia, her first reaction was of disbelief. Though he lagged behind in academics, she had determinedly tutored him at home, hoping the next progress report would bring better marks and news. Acceptance came over time, as did knowledge - of the learning disability itself, and of the facilities her son could avail of to continue his studies. Ironically, it was then that the real struggle began.
Her son studied at a Mumbai school affiliated to the Indian School Certificate Examinations (ICSE) board, whose circulars spell out in no uncertain terms that children with disabilities should be given grace marks in tests and additional time to finish exam papers. The school authorities, however, weren't interested in these 'concessions'. Her son was detained in the sixth standard, though all that stood between him and a pass percentage was his rightful share of grace marks. D'Silva took her complaints to the principal and the higher-ups in the school management, but no solution was forthcoming. She was forced to file a petition in the Bombay High Court, where her case is now being heard. Her son, meanwhile, is repeating his sixth standard classes.
D'Silva's story is probably not unique, in a country where children with disabilities are routinely edged out of an education system that's hesitant to acknowledge - leave alone celebrate - diversity. Inclusion may well be the key word in India's current education policy, but as D'Silva's experience well demonstrates, there is a world of difference between the enactment of legislation and its implementation.
Of rules and regulations
If one were to go only by the laws and policies regarding inclusion formulated in this country, there is ample reason to be optimistic. Since the Seventies, various Central Government schemes - especially those for Universalisation of Elementary Education - have been advocating the inclusion of children with disabilities into the mainstream educational system. These include:
The Integrated Education for Disabled Children Scheme, launched in 1974, to admit children with disabilities in regular schools;
The District Primary Education Programme, 1985, which acknowledges the fact that universalisation of education is possible only if it includes children with disabilities;
The National Policy on Education, 1986, which promotes the integration of children with mild disabilities into the mainstream;
The Project Integrated Education for the Disabled, launched in 1987, which encourages all schools in a neighbourhood to enroll children with disabilities;
The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which recommends making changes in assessment and curriculum, and removing architectural barriers, to support inclusion. It also recommends providing free books and uniform for children with disabilities;
The National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Retardation and Multiple Disability, 1999, which recommends promotion of inclusive education;
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA, 2000), which pledges that the "SSA will ensure that every child with special needs, irrespective of the kind, category and degree of disability, is provided education in an appropriate environment";
The Amendment to the Constitution in 2001, to make education a fundamental right for those in the 6-14 age group, which covers children with disabilities;
The draft National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, which has a section on education, stating, "There is a need for mainstreaming (sic) of the persons with disabilities in the general education system through inclusive education." It also mentions that children "learn best in the company of their peers";
A Comprehensive Plan of Action for Children and Youth with Disabilities, presented by the minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, in March 2005. This Action Plan advocates inclusive education, and envisages making all schools "disabled-friendly" by 2020. In a statement to the Rajya Sabha in March 2005, Arjun Singh also said that selected schools will be converted into model inclusive schools, "in order to demonstrate what is necessary and possible; this exercise will then be extended to schools across the country";
Legislation in favour of inclusion has also been supported by circulars issued by various state and central boards of education, such as the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) and the ICSE. As psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty points out, the circulars list various concessions that children with disabilities can avail of. In a circular issued in May 2005, the CBSE states that children with disabilities should have "barrier-free access to all educational facilities", and that dyslexic students can study one language instead of two and any four of the subjects such as mathematics, science, social science, music and painting, among others. The ICSE provides extra time to students with disabilities to complete exams, as well as writers, if required. The children can also choose from a number of subjects such as yoga and physical training.
Several state governments have similar policies for their boards. The Maharashtra board, for instance, gives students with disabilities extra time during tests, concessions while learning mathematics and the option of studying one language less than what is otherwise mandatory.
The high number of policies in support of inclusion, unfortunately, is in no way indicative of the current situation in the country. Quoting the National Sample Survey Organisation's 2002 report on 'Disabled Persons in India', the draft policy for persons with disabilities, prepared by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, states that 55 percent of those with disabilities are illiterate. This is a "very large and unacceptable percentage," says the draft.
A study conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People disclosed shocking facts of discrimination against those with disabilities. A survey of 89 schools across the country found that a mere 0.5 percent of the total number of students were those with disabilities, though the Persons with Disabilities Act recommends a reservation of three percent seats in institutions funded by the government. Eighteen of the schools surveyed acknowledged that they did not admit students with disabilities. Twenty percent of the schools polled were not aware of the 1995 Disability Act at all. While girls comprised 41.6 percent of the total student population, among children with disabilities, the percentage of girls was only 33.
Shayama Chona, Padmashree awardee and principal, Delhi Public School (DPS), RK Puram, says that children with disabilities are not accepted in many schools. Some schools, she adds, don't even hesitate to make a fast buck out of parents - they charge higher fees to enroll students with disabilities. While legislation does provide for admission of students with disabilities, "Passing an Act is not the same as executing it," she says.
Barriers to inclusion
If attitudes are a problem, so is the physical environment. Javed Abidi, executive director of the centre that conducted the survey on inclusion, says that at one point, special schools were thought to be the answer to those with disabilities. Due to this, "Over a period of time, schools and colleges were built in ways that could not be accessed by those with disabilities - not a single university in our country has a ramp," he says. In fact, in the survey conducted by the centre, lack of trained staff and infrastructure were cited as the main reasons why school authorities were apprehensive about admitting students with disabilities.
In her dissertation, Koshi writes about asking other principals whether they would make structural changes to their building "to accommodate a challenged child". The 10 private school principals to whom she put the question did reply in the affirmative, but at the same time added that there was no money or space for employing physiotherapists or setting up a language lab.
If lack of funding is publicly touted as an excuse, covert worries of school authorities usually centre on the performance of students with disabilities. In metros such as Mumbai, where competition to score high results in the tenth and twelfth standard exams is fierce, many principals believe that children with learning disabilities may pull down the school's top scores. Therefore, they prefer to detain children with disabilities in lower classes. As Rajiv Kumar, a lawyer who is appearing for D'Silva as well as another parent of a child with learning disability, says, "Elite schools are programmed to produce results ... and principals want credit for success." While concessions seek to ensure that the child does not suffer from an inferiority complex because of failure in exams, principals negate this objective with their attitudes, he adds.
Dr Shetty feels that concessions are a way in which the system "apologises" to students with disabilities for not being able to assess or teach them the way it should be done. Despite that, school authorities view it as a way in which the children - the parents of the children, to be more exact - try to take advantage of the school.
There are hardly any avenues for parents who wish to fight against the school authorities. "Few stand up for fear of their child being victimised," points out Kumar. Suzan Machado's story is a case in point. The mother of a child with learning disabilities, Machado is now fighting a case in the Bombay High Court against her son's school (in Mumbai) for not providing him the concessions that he's eligible for and detaining him in the seventh standard. She says her son is now being confined to the backbenches, though he has difficulty seeing the board from there, and is often made to "sit with girls", which he finds discomfiting.
For some good counsel
The lack of empathy among school authorities possibly stems from poor knowledge about children with disabilities. The Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) syllabus itself lacks sufficient information on disabilities. "There is a section on special education, but nothing on inclusion," says Koshi.
As a result, teachers are sometimes shockingly ignorant about children with disabilities. Says Machado, "There is no awareness among teachers about learning disabilities. Once, a teacher told me that though she had given my son extra time, he still wasn't performing well in exams." Neither did the school have facilities for holding remedial classes for those with learning disabilities. Machado's son, therefore, has to attend classes organised by the Maharashtra Dyslexia Association, a body of teachers and parents that works towards creating awareness about dyslexia.
A majority of the schools don't have special educators or counsellors, even if they have students with disabilities, though the Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992 says that children with disabilities have the right to be taught by a qualified teacher. In the survey conducted by the National Centre, 55 percent of the 89 schools were found to have admitted students with disabilities, but only 20 employed special educators while 12 provided training to teachers for working with students with disabilities. "In India, 99 per cent of the schools don't have counsellors," says Dr Shetty, who is also president, Counsellors Association of India.
Apart from creating insensitivity, the lack of knowledge among educators about disabilities results in poor methodology. Koshi recalls visiting schools in Tuticorin, Tamilnadu where a non-government organisation had convinced schools to enroll children with disabilities. However, the requisite curricular and assessment changes that should have accompanied this attempt at inclusion had not been done at the schools. "What is the point of the exercise then?" she wonders.
Inclusion is globally accepted as the best way to ensure the right to education for all. The UNESCO Salamanca Statement and Framework of Action on Special Needs Education, 1994, states that "Regular schools with an inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive community and achieving education for all." Concurring with the statement, Medha Lotlikar, a Mumbai-based educator and trustee of the Saraswati Mandir Trust that runs two special schools, says that inclusion is the ultimate goal in countries such as Australia, Germany and the US. Shayama Chona adds that in the US, schools receive additional grants if they admit children with disabilities.
For inclusion to become a reality in India, there would have to be a movement to create awareness, says Chona, adding that the world over, such lobby groups had been formed by those with disabilities themselves or the parents of children with disabilities. Abidi adds that India needs a regulatory system, a watchdog to prompt people to act. The Human Resource Development ministry's latest Action Plan holds the promise that the ministry will coordinate activities such as creating awareness and creating a barrier-free physical environment in schools. It remains to be seen whether the plan will indeed translate into some action.