Children with disability (CwD) are an integral part of the student body, and their education must be a part of the education discourse in India. Economically vulnerable sections are more prone to becoming disabled owing to poor living conditions. Disability worsens poverty by limiting employment opportunities and higher out of pocket expenditure on healthcare. Hence, poverty is both a cause and an effect of disability. This increases inequalities in society.
Education is an important asset for disabled persons to live with dignity. Inclusive education is a system wherein all children, including those with a disability, are taught together under the same roof. It aims to do away with segregated education, which excludes children based on their natural abilities.
Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Act (2016) aims to create an equitable society for persons with disability. Chapter 3 of the Act talks about the right to free education for CwD in a school of their liking. The Act prioritises resources and physical access (e.g. distribution of aid and appliances) or infrastructures such as ramps in schools over transforming systems like pedagogy, curriculum or attitudes. Michael Fullan has drawn insights from countries that have successfully implemented inclusive education. He talks about three stages:
- First, strong policies that favour inclusivity.
- Second, a robust training program for teachers.
- Third, an ecosystem of education consultants and researchers who produce knowledge and information needed for problem-solving and decision making on the field.
India has solid policies for inclusive education; Integrated Education of Disabled Children (IEDC) 1974, National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation, and Multiple Disabilities Act 1999. Therefore, India has passed stage one, however, it is stuck between stages two and three. It needs a strong teacher training program to progress to stage two and subsequently to stage three.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) educates teachers about inclusivity in the classroom via effective practices in classroom organisation, seating arrangements, teaching-learning material (TLM), individualised education programs (IEPs), evaluation tools, etc. In this teacher training, there is an elective subject – ‘Children with Special Needs’ – that educates teachers on how to identify a disability and include CwD in everyday classroom activities. This elective is voluntary and hence sends out the message that it is not the most important concept under teacher training. As a result, not many teachers get trained in inclusive education.
An NCERT study shows that most teachers in India are not confident in their ability to educate CwD, and the current training support is insufficient. Teachers pointed out that training is given to educate CWD in isolation from other students, whereas in real-life scenarios, they teach both kinds of students together.
A major assumption that the above policies make is that teachers are open to the inclusion principle (and are optimistic about it). This attitude was also related to the quality of training provided to teachers on inclusion. Educators should not be left with trial and error when it comes to making classrooms more inclusive. As a doctor is given rigorous training before she is allowed to treat a patient, the same should be true for educators.
School teachers must be mandated to contextualise curriculum needs as per their classrooms and adopt different learning styles as and when required. This calls for making flexible lesson plans, which can accommodate any changes in classroom dynamics. Assessment and evaluation tools also need to be differentiated for the two groups or designed to provide all students with an equal chance to prove their ability. Lastly, it is important that teachers collaborate with important stakeholders like special educators, paraprofessionals, and parents of CwD.
Two out of three PwDs in India today are unemployed, and a majority of those who do work do so in the unorganised sector as migrant or contractual labour. Most of their families are struggling financially – now even more than before owing to the pandemic. In the face of all of this, how India manages and implements teacher training becomes crucial to turning the tide.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.