By Theja Pamarthy

It was on my birthday in 2016 that I received the best birthday gift of my life. It was the gift of understanding inequalities and gaps. I was teaching a bubbly bunch of fourth graders in a public school in Chennai, India, when a child slowly walked into my classroom grinning, fresh after her admission process in the school. Nina was sent to my class despite being two years older than her new classmates, owing to her special ability of a delayed understanding, which I later found resulted from a thirty percent intellectual impairment. 

Her enchanting grin and captivating eyes immediately caught the class’s attention and we all welcomed another member with much enthusiasm on an otherwise normal day. But for Nina, it was her first day of school in her life. She was happy being in this new atmosphere for the very first time. But the happiness came with its difficulty in her adjusting to other children. She was not potty-trained and had to be rushed frequently to the toilet. She could not contain her attention for more than 10 seconds. It was then that I was put on the path to push myself to not just be a better teacher but also be a better human being. I went back home every day to research special education only to find the appalling results that led me to pursue a career in public service. Through my research, I found that Nina was not the only one to enter school at 12 after being turned away several times. 

India is home to 472 million children (one-third of her total population), out of which 2.9 million are children with special needs (henceforth CWSN), as observed by UNICEF. It is grave to note that, according to Census 2011, just 39% of the CWSN are enrolled in school, and of those, only 621,000 go to mainstream schools through the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). Because of a lack of infrastructure, un-accommoding school leaders, and unfriendly exam patterns after high school, CWSN enrollment further dwindles from elementary to higher education.

Why is this a problem? According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), education is a fundamental right of every human being. And it is pivotal that CWSN are given the opportunity of equity that helps bridge the gap arising from viewing their special abilities exclusively viz. special schools. The inclusive nature of mainstream schools is envisioned to erase the barriers of engagement by focussing on participation so that children who benefit from it, irrespective of their abilities and aspirations, would go on to be a part of and add value to a society that respects their individuality.

Despite the zero rejection policy of India’s grand initiative Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA, meaning “Education for All”) and the call for inclusive education through the Integrated Education for Disabled Children (IEDC) programme, the vision of achieving equal and universal education for all remains a far-fetched dream to a large number of children in India, particularly the CWSN. What these children need is equity in education, not “equality in education.” This means striving to provide any and every opportunity of aid possible to help them have access to the education they deserve. This can be realized not just by adding nominal ramps in a few public schools, but with a change in attitude and sensitization of the many stakeholders toward the childrens’ special needs.

The Government of India has taken many steps toward inclusive education over the past few years by introducing IEDC, SSA, Universalization of Elementary Education, and lastly, the Right to Education Act (RTE). Yet, it is disheartening that there are still schools in both rural (where nearly 70% of the CWSN population lives) and urban areas, where some CWSN are turned away or are encouraged to go to special schools and home-based tuition, despite the RTE act impressing on the need for inclusivity in mainstream schooling. 

This dim scenario of special education in the mainstream schools is caused by a multitude of issues: lack of awareness of rights by parents, fragmentary teacher training, misrepresentation of student data, bad institutional design, and ineffectual infrastructure due to insufficient state funds. These factors create a huge gap for India in realizing inclusive education in its truest sense.

Well, how do we bridge the gap?

My experience at the grassroots level helped me to understand the need for a strong and conscientious governance model for the implementation of schemes through a bottom-up approach. Mandating stronger School Management Committees that include all stakeholders of the child’s life — both in rural and urban mainstream schools — can be a stepping stone. It will ensure the committee can address specific needs required by the schools welcoming these children at a block/zonal level. 

Issues such as the absence of operational infrastructure like ramps, wheelchairs, special user-friendly toilets and classrooms in every school needs to be addressed on a priority basis, with the combined effort of all three ministries concerned with CWDs. Student enrollment tracking, preferably district-wide, should be implemented rigorously across India in a phased manner to have unambiguous data.

Role of teacher in the “Teach-Learn” Loop

A teacher’s work is not merely to teach but to awaken, making the student aware of what is within and educating the heart along with the mind.

Being an educator, working with children like Nina has taught me that in order to create a sense of belonging, it is important to be equally vulnerable and sensitive to their world and needs. Pushing oneself towards child-centric teaching with the use of special child-friendly technology that is multi-sensory and a dedicated playtime for the children specific to their ability would go a long way in setting the right culture for their learning. Mild tweaks to the examination structure to accommodate the child’s needs would also create a vast difference to the child’s morale. 

From understanding the thin line of difference between equality and equity to believing in sowing the seeds of inclusion today to reap the fruit tomorrow, India needs not only a change in structures but a radical shift in the ideology of special ability so that many more children like Nina can get the opportunity they deserve in realizing their true potential. 

Theja Pamarthy is in her first year at NYU Wagner, pursuing an MPA with a specialization in public policy. She serves as a first-year representative for The Wagner Review, the Pan Asian Student Alliance and the Wagner Diversity Council.