In an uncaring society which has earned a notorious global reputation for hypocritical piety and institutionalised neglect of the poor and disadvantaged, it’s the ultimate cruelty. Across the subcontinent 90 percent of India’s estimated 40 million children aged four-16 years with physical and mental disabilities are out of school. And the overwhelming majority of them are vagabonds not out of volition but because callous school managements and over-anxious parents of abled children in a travesty of humanity and social justice have consistently discouraged them from entering the nation’s classrooms. Social justice and equity which are dominant sentiments of the Constitution of India demand that India’s 35 million physically disabled, if not the 5 million mentally challenged, children should be given preferential access into primary and secondary schools. Instead nine-tenths of them are systematically excluded.

Courtesy, Education World The cover of this conspiracy of exclusion of challenged children from the education system was dramatically blown in mid March when Star TV and several newspapers reported the refusal of every school — government and private — in Kerala (officially India’s most literate state) to admit seven-year-old Benson and his five-year-old sister Bensy, whose parents died of AIDS. Though it’s well-known that the HIV-AIDS virus is not communicable, both children were dismissed from the Kaithakuzhi Government Lower Primary School after the school’s parent-teachers association backed by villagers launched a stir for their expulsion. Opinions voiced by doctors and social workers to the effect that there was no risk of other students in the class contracting AIDS were ignored. And following the example of this government school every other school has refused to admit Benson and Bensy.

It’s against this backdrop of continuous neglect to develop the potential of this large minority of challenged children that over 150 delegates from 30 countries converged upon Kochi, Kerala, in late January to discuss ways and means to right this manifest wrong, not only in India but around the world. The four-day conference titled ‘North-South Dialogue II on Inclusive Education: From Rhetoric to Reality’, culminated in the Kochi Declaration which calls upon governments around the world to recognise and enforce the right of disabled children to be included in mainstream education institutions.

An intervention in community development, teacher training and public awareness programmes has resulted in a dramatic change in attitudes in and around primary schools in Dharavi, Mumbai, reportedly the largest slum settlement in Asia.
“It’s a cruel scandal that over 90 million physically challenged children worldwide, of whom 36 million are in India, are being systemically excluded from mainstream education. The aim of the North South Dialogue II was to initiate focused discussion on this subject and to suggest ways and means by which children with disabilities can be integrated into mainstream education in India and worldwide. Many countries have made policy changes to that effect, but few — including India — have put these policies into practice. The Kochi Declaration adopted at the end of the North South Dialogue II offers a clear road map to third world countries and especially the government of India, to initiate policy changes to urgently integrate physically and mentally challenged children,” says Sathi Alur, a Mumbai-based economist and financial advisor to the Spastics Society of India (SSI) and National Resource Centre for Inclusion (NRCI).

The Kochi conference was a sequel to the successful North South Dialogue I, held in Mumbai in February-March 2001. While the objective of the North South Dialogue I was to examine models of inclusive education in countries in the industrialised northern hemisphere (UK, Canada, Norway etc) and in developing countries in the southern hemisphere (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa), the objective of the second dialogue was to focus on how the ideology and philosophy of inclusive education can be actualised through changes in classroom, school, community values and by influencing local, state and national governments.

Both the North South dialogues on inclusive education have been orchestrated by the Mumbai-based NRCI, which was promoted in 1999 by Dr. Mithu Alur with moral and material help from the Canada-based Roeher Institute and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). A celebrated activist and champion of the disabled, Mithu Alur founded the pioneer Spastics Society of India (SSI) in Mumbai way back in 1972. Over the years SSI has helped develop a network of 18 associated schools spread over 16 states which together have brightened the lives of over 10,000 children with multiple disabilities.

The main objective of the North South Dialogue II was to measure the progress of inclusive education in India and in other countries and to learn from each other’s experiences. For example in India NRCI has successfully developed a model of desegregation which enables able-bodied children to study happily with the physically and mentally challenged. Following the development of this model, the SSI centres across the country are considering throwing open their doors to able-bodied children as well. In NRCI and several SSI centres all children learn together side by side. I wholly subscribe to the national objective of Education For All. But, ‘all’ should include disabled children as well. Therefore we have begun networking with other NGOs across the country and have formed an All India Regional Alliance for Inclusive Education to attain the EFA goal,” says Mithu Alur, who became involved with the cause of challenged children following the birth of her daughter Malini in 1966.

According to Alur, the inclusion of disabled children into main-stream schools will inevitably result in their acceptance into society and also within their own families many of whom still hide away children with disabilities. “If all children grow up together there is less likelihood of resistance towards and ostracism of the disabled. The character of children, the nation’s classrooms, and of society itself will become more compassionate and caring. With 36 million challenged children out of the education system and an additional 40 million people suffering from some kind of disability, can we afford to waste this resource by ignoring their education? It’s important to understand that physically challenged people can be highly productive, contributing citizens. The world would have been poorer if Cambridge had spurned (the well-known and utterly disabled scientist) Stephen Hawking,” says Alur.

Even though it’s a relatively unknown concept in India, inclusive education has been tried and tested here, and it works. A focused intervention by NRCI activists in community development, teacher training and public awareness programmes has resulted in a dramatic change in attitudes of peers, parents and teachers in primary schools in Dharavi, Mumbai, reportedly the largest slum settlement in Asia. An experiment in mainstreaming disabled children, which began in 1992 in Dharavi’s Noorani Memorial Karuna Sadan School, has spread to 12 anganwadis (play schools). Able-bodied as well as disabled children from 5,000 households are living proof of the efficiency of inclusive education prompting the transformation of four Spastics Society of India centres into inclusive schools in which able-bodied children study happily with their challenged classmates.

Persuading parents of ‘normal’ children to accept disabled children as classmates certainly wasn’t a cakewalk, given deeply entrenched social prejudices. “We had to work hard to persuade parents that inclusive education was possible. Most parents in this slum who were barely literate themselves believed that disabilities were contagious. Some of them expressed the opinion that their children would be scared or upset if they witnessed a disabled child getting a seizure or a fit or behaving unusually. But after we counselled them to give it a try and they experienced inclusive education, they are quite at peace with the whole idea,” recalls Varsha Hooja, an NRCI researcher and activist.

The Dharavi story of successful inclusive education is undoubtedly an exception. Most parents, including educated middle class citizens, display little sympathy and sensitivity towards children with visual, auditory, motor or intellectual limitations. There is no shortage of instances where educated middle class parents have fought proposals to include disabled children in their children’s classes and even to promote special schools in their neighbourhoods.

In the national capital, the Tamana School for the Handicapped founded by former Delhi Public School principal Shyama Chona in 1984 ran into unexpected illogical resistance. “It’s shocking but true that residents of Delhi’s up-market Vasant Vihar where the Tamana School is located objected on the grounds that it would despoil the neighbourhood. It’s sad that in north India, even educated people tend to turn their minds and faces away from people with disabilities rather than attempt to mainstream them. If every school in Delhi admitted even 20 handicapped children, the problem of educating challenged children would be solved. But schools don’t accept them, and even if they do, the poor child may have to be withdrawn ‘because other parents object’,” laments Purnima Jain, the principal of Tamana, who has been associated with the school since 1986.

However the times and attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. The enlightened managements of some mainstream schools across the country are waking up to the need — and advantages — of inclusive education. But even where there is a will, the way forward is difficult. The lack of disability-friendly transport services, buildings and sensitive teachers who can handle the learning needs of special children are greater problems than social prejudice and parental attitudes (see box p.42).

Meanwhile following the celebrated visit of almost wholly disabled physicist-mathematician Dr. Stephen Hawking to India in January 2001, the awareness that the mentally and physically challenged can become valuable, contributing members of society has slowly impacted academia, even taken root. Sustained media reportage on the outstanding achieve-ments of Hawking, Sir Richard Branson (chairman of Virgin Atlantic, a dyslexic), Christopher Reeve (Hollywood movie star crippled neck downwards) and Sudha Chandran (renowned dancer and television star who lost both legs in an accident) has created widespread awareness that with a little help India’s 36 million children with physical disabilities can be transformed into national resources.

Back home a high-profile, high-achiever, physically challenged intellectual who has emerged as a champion of the disabled is Malini Chib. A graduate of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Chib pressed on to read for a Masters at London University’s Institute of Education. Currently she is trustee of SSI and NRCI and is in the forefront of the growing national movement for inclusive education. In 2001, she launched ADAPT (Able Disabled All People Together), an NGO whose objective is to “break down architectural, attitudinal and social barriers so that disabled people can lead normal lives”.

“Most public buildings in India are neither friendly nor accessible to disabled people and serve to exclude them from participating in the public discourse. The objective of ADAPT is to pressurise people and institutions to make buildings disabled-friendly and create a barrier-free environment. People in all societies are interdependent socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. Ignoring the reality of co-dependency will result in the creation of selfish and self-focussed societies. In ADAPT we believe that by projecting personal experiences into the public domain, we can persuade people to change their attitudes towards the physically challenged and create a disability-friendly society,” says Chib.

Certainly within the small but influential five million-strong community of teachers and academics across the country, consistent advocacy of the cause of mainstreaming physically challenged students into institutions of education by SSI and NRCI has transformed societal attitudes. Says Roda Billimoria, the Mumbai-based managing trustee of the Sir Shapurji Billimoria Foundation, which also advocates the cause of integrated education; “Classrooms should be representative of the society in which we live. Can you show me any society without people with disabilities? Therefore why shouldn’t this country’s classrooms include disabled students to mirror society?”

Though the statistic that 90 percent of physically challenged children in India are out of school is shocking, the condition of their counterparts in other developing countries isn’t any better. According to Diane Richler the Toronto-based chairperson of Inclusion International and Inclusion Inter-Americana, across Latin America only one-third of the disabled children receive any type of education at all and in some countries such as El Salvador and Nicaragua the percentage of special needs children in school is as low as 1-3 percent.

Focussed upon forcing governments and international funding institutions such as the World Bank and IMF to accept the logic of inclusive education, Inclusion International has notched up some notable successes. It has persuaded the Organisation of American States (OAS) to amend the Declaration of Managua, 1991 which guarantees universal primary education to all children in member nations of the OAS, to mandate mainstream education of challenged children as a fundamental human right.

Moreover it has persuaded the G8 nations’ education task force which is working towards universal education for all (EFA) globally by the year 2015, to include special needs children within the EFA perspective. “Even in the industrial developed nations of the North there is considerable resistance to the logic of mainstreaming special needs children. For example in the Canadian province of Ontario though all challenged children are in school, only 50 percent of them have been mainstreamed. In Inclusion International our objective is not only to wrest policy commitments from national governments, but also to create awareness of the socio-economic advantages of inclusive education among international funding agencies and donor organisations,” says Richler.

Resistance to the idea of inclusive education within parental communities — even if not within governments — is rooted in a lack of awareness that the subject has been deeply researched around the world to the extent that the know-how and methodologies to introduce the concept in classrooms have been developed, though inclusive educationists insist that such know-how has to conform to culturally appropriate practices and precepts (CAPP). According to Dr. Seamus Hegarty, director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, London, the basic know-how for implementing inclusive education is freely available and it is possible for all children regardless of mental or physical disabilities to receive quality education.

“The critical prerequisites of realising the inclusive education ideal are parental education and expansion of national teacher pools. NGOs and voluntary organisations can play a major role in creating awareness that mainstreaming challenged children is an investment in people and that educating disabled children can transform them into net contributors to the economy. If parents are educated about the advantages of inclusive education which develops the virtues of empathy and compassion in children, they become a strong pressure group of the cause. However it’s also true that inclusive education requires manageable classrooms so that challenged children receive teacher attention. Therefore it is imperative that in developing countries such as India where classroom pupil-teacher ratios tend to be high, more qualified and trained teachers — not para teachers —are recruited to effectively implement inclusive education precepts and practices,” says Hegarty.

Most people, especially the aware and educated in developing nations including India, concede the point that economic arguments apart, the imperatives of social justice and equity mandate the education of physically and mentally challenged children. However the traditional response has been to promote special schools for special needs children, the presumption being that special needs children slow down the rest of the class. But proponents of inclusive education believe it is this exclusivist mindset which requires radical alteration.

“Special schools are dead-ends for special needs children. They promote isolation, alienation and social exclusion. It is this dominant attitude of exclusion which needs to be changed to build harmonious and compassionate societies. Having been tested and proven efficacious, inclusive education has transformed into a human rights issue. Special schools are a medical intervention. What the large number of people with disabilities in all societies need is a social development model which respects the right to self-esteem of this large minority. Children won’t learn unless they are happy and included. Therefore teachers must be taught to practise inclusion and respect disabilities. That’s what the growing inclusive education movement is all about,” explains Richard Rieser director of Disabilities in Education, a London-based NGO.

Contemporary India is one of the few countries worldwide where the education of disabled children doesn’t fall within the purview of the education ministry. It is the burden of the omnibus ministry of social justice and empowerment.
Inevitably, back home in India politically correct enabling legislation has been enacted. But the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 which stipulates that “appropriate govern-ments and the local authorities shall endeavour to promote the integration of students with disabilities in the normal schools”, is practiced more in the breach than observance. Likewise the Union government’s newly unfolded Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) campaign to deliver “useful and quality elementary education” to all children in the six-14 age group by year 2010, makes politically correct noises about the education of girls and special needs children emphasising a “zero rejection policy for children with special needs”.

Moreover the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution of India (now renumbered as the 86th), passed by the Lok Sabha on November 28, 2001, makes it mandatory for the government to provide free and compulsory education to “all children of the age of six-14 years”, with its preamble clarifying that “all” includes children with disabilities as well. Yet inevitably again, vital loose ends of such enabling policies and legislation are not tied up. Contemporary India is one of the few countries worldwide where the education of disabled children doesn’t fall within the purview of the human resource development (a.k.a. education) ministry. It is the burden of the omnibus ministry of social justice and empowerment.

“The prime focus of the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment is rehabilitation, not education. In fact, till today it does not have education as part of its agenda and the issue of education of children with disabilities remains invisible, hidden from the public domain, a private problem for families and NGOs to deal with. It’s time that government agencies as well as mainstream institutions woke up to the reality that segregation of children is morally unjustifiable and a violation of human rights. Indeed there is no other way to provide education to 36 million disabled children. Seventy-eight percent of our population lives in rural areas. Where is the money for special schools there? Therefore inclusive schools have to address the needs of all children in every community and the central and state governments have to train their teachers to manage inclusive classrooms,” says Mithu Alur.

Quite clearly the seeds of the rapidly growing global movement for inclusive education have germinated in India where a massive population of 80 million citizens including 40 million children have been callously excluded from the education system, and consequently from the national development process. One of the beneficial fallouts of the communications revolution has been the free flow of ideas, concepts and development models across national borders. Research studies around the world and NRCI’s pilot project in Mumbai have clearly demonstrated that inclusive education is not only imperative on the grounds of morality, social justice and equity but also makes economic sense. With the Kochi Declaration of Jan 31 having drawn up a clear road map for implementing the much-delayed Education For All agenda, an opportunity for translating politically correct EFA rhetoric into classroom reality has devolved upon the central and state governments — and citizens — across the country.

The national interest as much as the realisation of the fundamental right to education of India’s 40 million challenged children demands that this opportunity to right a continuous wrong is not muffed.