Millennium Post

‘Special children’ need special care

Kudos to members of the Rajya Sabha. Bouquets for them this time round instead of the usual the brickbats reserved for politicians. On 21 May, the leaders decided to put aside chaos and a war of words in the House of Elders all for the sake of children. The Members responded with an (unexpected) unanimous YES when the Deputy Chairman asked if they were willing to take up the issue of children with special needs. The short notice question by BJP member Tarun Vijay till then was being drowned in the din of a heated exchange between members of two rival political parties. Political issues were kept aside to allow for a 10 minute discussion on how children with special needs were being denied education.

Who are children with special needs? These are 'special children' because they are the ones with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and behavioral problems. They differ from normal children to such an extent that they require special education and physical settings planned exclusively for their needs to help them achieve greatest self sufficiency and success in community and school. They could be mentally retarded, dyslexic, with speech problems, hearing problems, have cerebral palsy, visually impaired, autistic or physically handicapped. According to estimates available 3% of the children in the world are 'special' children. In India the figure is estimated to be 5%.   

Unfortunately in India, children with special needs are largely not treated as special. It is common to hear the physically challenged mocked as 'langdaa' (lame) or the mentally challenged as 'paagal' (mad). In fact these have become generic names for children with disabilities of different types. This insensitivity tragically stems from social taboos and adult ignorance. For a significant number of parents, children, with any sort of disability ranging from slight to severe, are a source of embarrassment. They are marginalised, hidden away somewhere and denied vital technical expertise and attention of parents who have been counseled to help them realise their potential.

No doubt there is a positive change in social attitudes towards children with special needs because of an increased awareness of the types of physical and mental disabilities as well as guidance available to make things better for them. But the bitter fact is that plenty more has to be done to help them become as much as possible a part of the mainstream. This requires making physical settings friendly to the physically challenged, opening regular schools which have special equipment and teachers for them allowing interaction with normal children and for all to learn to accept disability as part of a human condition and respect the differences found in humans.

The Union Government has been taking steps to ensure that children with special needs are not segregated and instead get an opportunity to attend regular schools with normal children. The Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 provides that every child with a disability has access to free education till the age of 18 years, no child with special needs be denied admission in mainstream educational institutions, a 3% reservation for such children in institutions receiving government funds, schools make available trained teachers for them, modify physical infrastructure and teaching methodologies to meet their needs and all schools be made disabled friendly by 2020. Children with special needs have now been included in the ambit of Socially Disadvantaged Sections in the Right to Education Bill. This means that children with disabilities will now come under the 25% category that private schools must admit. The amendments to the RTE Act 2009 passed in the Lok Sabha include definition of such a child. However children with dyslexia could not be included in the Act as it is not named as a disability in India. Once the Disability Act is amended dyslexia would be automatically included in the RTE Act.  

The truth however is that there is poor implementation of the Disabilities Act 1995by State governments. This means that inclusive education for children with special needs remains more or less on paper only. According to the government statistics there are two crore children with special needs in India. The World Bank puts the figure at about six crore. It is a recognised fact that children with disabilities constitute the largest number of out of school children. There is a gender issue too when it comes to a girl child with a disability. Women with disabilities have major psycho-social problems which remain neglected (Nosele Hughes 2003). Such women and girls are restricted to home based activities.

A dearth of special teachers for special children makes schools reluctant to take in children with disabilities. According to HRD minister Kapil Sibal, 30,47,399 children with special needs have been identified since the inception of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. Of these 26,62,746 have been enrolled in schools. As many as 20,077 resource teachers and resource persons have been appointed. About 7,51,550 schools have been made 'barrier free' which means they take in children with special needs. He however does accept that a lot more has to be done to ensure that states implement the Disabilities Act.

India has moved from the charity model to the human rights model when it comes to educating children with disabilities. In the '70s India followed the policy of segregating children with disabilities from normal children. This brought about their isolation and marginalisation because they were confined to custodial care. The 1990 World conference in Salamca on Special Need Education gave 'inclusion' as a better option for special children. Inclusive education means that children with disabilities and those without learn together in schools of course with appropriate support services. This was based on the thinking that children that learn together, learn to live together. With this in mind the Union Government's Integrated Education for disabled children (IEDC) scheme was amalgamated with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 1997. The thrust of the 1970 IEDC scheme was also to provide education to special children in regular schools along with trained teachers at the ration of one special teacher for every 8 special need children, assistive devices and counseling of parents.

The inclusive education scheme needs more than amendments and Acts. It needs introduction of a inclusive curriculum that is flexible, broad and balanced. It needs trained teachers and adequate funding. Above all it needs a well defined, clear and forceful policy on inclusion. All this is woefully in short supply. While the Ministry of Social Justice is implementing the scheme of exclusive special schools for special children the HRD is pitching for an inclusive schooling system. The contradiction is counter productive. We need to realise soon that our children with special needs are special and need focused attention. Just as the Rajya Sabha members gave in praiseworthy unanimity cutting across party lines and political interests.
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