Roughly 10% of our population falls under the category of some form of disability, out of which around 2% are people with mental disability. A great thrust has already been made in the field of education in recent years and efforts to see every individual become literate has gained a lot of momentum. In this context, the field of special education is still in its infancy as far as mainstreaming and integrated education are concerned.

If ever they do, children with special needs often receive services in a segregated or a special school. Though segregated schools work to help these children and provide specialised services, the entire possibility of mainstreaming these children is lost. Children with special needs often have to commute long distances to reach their schools as there are only few centres in any city which offers specialised services. In small towns and villages, there can often be no local options. According to the Persons with disabilities Act, all schools, private or government, are not to discriminate children with special needs and they have to provide the services they need. The implementation of the rules though is best observed in their absence.

A serious social problem these children face as they grow is that they have to explain to their peer group why they go to a special school and not to a regular school. A child is a child irrespective of his/her condition. A child has not only to learn to cope with his/her individual condition but also the harsh reality of society's attitude towards him/her. As a human being, it is but natural to yearn for acceptance and recognition.

Consider the life of a mentally challenged child in a segregated setup or in a complete special school. The most formative years of our life is our childhood, the time when our faculties are sharper and learning through modelling and imitation is higher. The children who go to a special school often interact only with other special children and miss out on learning behaviours and skills that could have occurred had they been in the company of normal children. For example, a child in a special set up uses language and communication skills and behaviours that are used by other special children and which is most often basic in nature.

On the other hand, as a special educator with 12 years in an integrated school, I have seen that not only are there advantages for the children with mental disabilities and their families, but there are gains to be made by the the normal kids too. When we integrate, mainstream and offer services to children irrespective of their individual differences we are equally promoting the rights of every individual.

The term "adaptive behaviour" as understood in the field of education, plays a very important role in any person's life. It generally refers to our ability to cope with the changing environment and adapt according to the situations we are placed in. When a special child interacts with a normal peer he gets exposed to a wide variety of language inputs in terms of content and vocabulary. Importantly, age appropriate behaviours are often acquired through the company and the expectations which the society imposes on normal children. The urge to be a part of normal peers adds to the zest in improving their basic skills.

In an integrated environment, a disabled child gets to participate in all the activities that are conducted in the special classes and they as well get a chance to participate in all the co-curricular activities alongwith their normal peers. This boosts their confidence levels and they become comfortable with their own condition. They receive the same platform to express themselves as any other student. Several studies in the field of education have shown that children learn a lot through imitation and modelling. Integrated education offers the opportunity for the special children to learn socially acceptable behaviours. And there is also the satisfaction parents derive upon watching their child with special needs being a part of a regular school.

Secondly, the special children can have as many choices of schools as their normal peers do. Long commutes can be avoided by having access to the schools in the immediate neighbourhood. It is much easier to use existing facilities for schooling rather than pool resources to set up special schools. If all the existing schools admitted just a few special children, the need for special schools will be eliminated. Just as we employ teachers to teach various subjects and include them in the curriculum, we need to employ special educators or people who are inclined to understand and work in the field of disability to offer services for special children. Most parents of special children are willing to pay for the services needed by their children.

Ideally, in the primary school, i.e. until the age of 12 - 13 and depending upon the level of the child, s/he should be integrated in a regular classroom for a part of the day. After that, all the extra-curricular activities like P.T, Games, drawing/painting, socially useful and productive activities, cultural activities like music, dance, annual day, sports day and all the other festivals conducted in a school should have full participation by the special children along with the normal peers.

Contrary to the fears of the adults, the normal students generally opt to sit next to the special child and help him/her with activities in colouring, teaching spelling, tutoring in academics and help in teaching simple games.
Academics is one area which needs close monitoring by the special educator and this is largely depends on the level of the child. Hence, the focus should be child centered and a proper Individual Educational Plan (IEP) should be prepared while integrating these children into regular classrooms. A special Educator has to be specially deputed for follow-up for special children who are placed in regular classrooms. My experience tells me that no more than 3 to 4 students should be assigned to a special educator. The Special educator's job is to ascertain the level of the child, plan an IEP, place the child in a regular classroom and provide follow up services in all the areas that need development.

Therapeutics like physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, pre-vocational activities etc. should also be included in the IEPs. Facilities for these services should be a part of the programme, if possible on a regular basis or atleast on consultation. Class teachers in the regular environment need orientation in terms of the condition of the special children and also a thorough shift in their attitudes and beliefs about these children. While this may not happen overnight, it can surely happen within a generation.

At some point of time, it becomes necessary to orient the parents of normal children also to promote a healthy and more accepting attitude towards special children. It is a joy to watch the special children participating in the activities conducted in a regular classroom. For a normal child, it gives a great feeling of satisfaction that he/she is able to help another human being.

In fact, contrary to the fears of the adults, the normal students generally opt to sit next to the special child and help him/her with activities in colouring, teaching spelling, tutoring in academics and help in teaching simple games. During snacks break or lunch break, they are all often seen sharing their snacks, run to the nearest stall to purchase cool drinks/dry snacks and often indulge in mischievous behaviour. Isn't growing up a lot of fun in this way? I certainly believe that when we can enjoy life for what it is, the pain and suffering of alienation caused by our conditions are easily erased.

Segregation of the disabled leaves us unaware of the realities of disabilities and the real possibilities. Even reading material in this field is not to be seen in our school syllabi. Attitudes, beliefs and values are often learnt and passed on from one generation to another at our places of learning. The few facilities for the disabled which are available at present are most often due to families with disabled members having invested their own time, effort and money despite disadvantages they may face themselves. Families without any disabled members seldom participate in institution building or providing services for people with disabilities. In this context, integration in school will be beneficial for the society at large as well.

As normal children become aware about disabilities, there is a greater chance that they will grow into sensitive adults, regardless of whether their own families had special children. They are also more likely to contribute towards providing facilities for the disabled because they knew someone in their school. They will also take inspiration from the efforts of the disabled, and try their best just as they see the disabled do. Most importantly, they will be better prepared for possible disabilities in their own lives or families if it does occur during their adult lives.

The changes to our system are only a matter of adaptation and awareness, but once made they will go a long way to accommodate every one in the general population. Children are very adaptive in nature and welcome changes with ease. We have to take advantage of this and facilitate normal children help and seek companionship with the special child and accept him/her as a part of the group. I have seen this working successfully with children in younger ages when the concept of being normal or abnormal etc., is not yet fully developed or fixed in a child.

Greater integration in schools will reduce the fear that the normal population has of the disabled, especially the mentally disabled. Our society needs solutions to the problems that it sees, not fear. It is really upto the schools to take the initiative. And schools that have already led the way in successfully integrating special and disabled children need our support and encouragement.