Making certain training for youngsters with particular wants
American stand-up comedian Trevor Noah aptly remarked in his autobiographical book: “People like to say, ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. ‘ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you could give him a fishing rod.’ ”Education can be a fishing rod equivalent, a tool of empowerment, an experience of freedom, a journey of self-assertion. However, our systemic inadequacies mean that many children have the opportunity to embark on such a liberating and transforming journey. Such structural gaps are even greater when it comes to the education of children with special needs (CWSN) – Plan International, an advocacy group for children’s rights, says CWSN are ten times less likely to attend school than other children.
In this context, I intend to discuss the work and vision of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) to educate CWSN through their schools. It’s more of a work in progress. It does not intend to propose a choice between inclusive schools and special schools. A single approach may not be possible as we are a country with different socio-economic and geographical conditions. However, as India prepares to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal, leaving no one behind in all areas including education, discussions and concrete action in this direction becomes important.
The Right to Education Act (RTE) has required the state to offer free and compulsory education to everyone. Previously, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act authorized local bodies to ensure basic education for all. Ensuring social participation in education was one of the motives for this step. In this context, after the division of the unified Delhi Municipal Corporation in 2012, the SDMC was able to operate 568 primary schools. Of the two hundred and fifty thousand students enrolled in SDMC schools in the four zones of Delhi, 1,027 are CWSN. However, the focus on providing resources for people with disabilities has been completely inadequate. We need to read the RTE Law in conjunction with various international declarations and conventions and the Law on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) of 2016 to understand the background of CWSN enrollment in SDMC schools.
The Salamanca Declaration, which India signed in the 1990s, specifically advocated the inclusion of CWSN in all educational institutions. The 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was the first international treaty categorically safeguarding the right of people with disabilities (PWD) to inclusive, high quality and free primary and secondary education on an equal footing with others in the community in which they are live, start living. By ratifying the said treaty, India committed itself to the full and equal participation of the CWSN in its educational endeavors. The obligation is manifested in the 2016 RPWD Act.
The RPWD law stands for the acceptance of people with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity. She emphasizes that high quality and inclusive education for CWSN is a right, not a luxury that must be “waived”. Section 16 of the Act empowers “government and local authorities to endeavor that all educational institutions provide inclusive education to children with disabilities”.
The SDMC’s efforts helped increase the number of CWSNs in their schools. Through her door-to-door admission campaign, she and other children are trying to reach the CWSN and ensure their enrollment in neighborhood schools. Once the asset is created, it serves a much larger purpose than originally planned. Since the schools will serve as voting booths during the elections, most SDMC school sites (especially the newer buildings) have handicapped accessible toilets and ramps as per the instructions of the electoral commission. 182 special education teachers are currently working at SDMC schools. Correspondence with the recruiting authority is ongoing to fill the vacancies of special education teachers for different categories of disabilities under the RPWD Act. Meanwhile, by addressing the specific functional, academic, and behavioral needs of CWSN, the existing special education teachers act as a bridge between them and their teachers and their classmates and provide advice to their parents.
While SDMC has paved the way for inclusion in education, there is still a long way to go. There are many loopholes in the system. To make education truly inclusive requires the partnership of teachers, parents, government officials and civil society organizations. One suggestion is to set up a resource center at headquarters level at the beginning, which can be expanded into one center per SDMC zone. The role of these centers can evolve depending on the needs analysis through constant interaction with teachers, special education teachers, CWSN and their parents. These resource centers would provide guidance and educational support to teachers and special education teachers, taking into account the unique needs of each CWSN. Teachers and special education teachers were able to learn from each other’s best practices through their fortnightly focused interactions. The centers would also advise and guide parents in creating a conducive and conducive environment for CWSN at home.
Second, the support and direct participation of civil society groups with field experience could be sought. Third, we have laudable examples of resource centers that play a critical role in providing active academic and technological support, as well as psycho-emotional and legal support to people with disabilities. The Xaviers ‘Resource Center for Visually Challenged at St. Xaviers’ College in Mumbai has started its function as an internal support system for students with disabilities. Learning by interacting with different actors over time, it has supported children, their teachers and parents by providing them with accessible forms of study such as math, science, physiotherapy and the like. The central library of Jawaharlal Nehru University also houses a well-equipped unit with a number of computers with pressure-impaired software and scanners. While the latter creates a physical space for PWDs to track academics, the former examines CWSN’s needs on a case-by-case basis. However, these and many other resource centers help to make the education system and the educational spaces for people with disabilities supportive and integrative.
The legal mandate is clear. A timetable is available. Continuous efforts are now required to move inclusion beyond socio-economic concerns. The education system must adapt and respond to the different needs of the CWSN. The participation of civil society groups and other private actors should be actively sought in order to mobilize both financial and human resources. These efforts would go a long way towards making inclusive, quality education a reality in every SDMC neighborhood school.
The author is Director, Education, South Delhi Municipal Corporation