Written by Pranjal Patil
The US-based stand-up comedian Trevor Noah aptly remarked in his autobiographical book, “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod’.” Education can be an equivalent of the fishing rod, a tool of empowerment, an experience of freedom, a journey towards self-assertion. However, our systemic shortcomings render many children without the opportunity to have such a liberating and transforming journey. Such structural gaps are even wider when it comes to the education of Children with Special Needs (CWSN) — Plan International, a children’s rights advocacy group, says CWSN are 10 times less likely to attend schools as compared to other children.
In this context, I intend to discuss the work and vision of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) towards education of CWSN through its schools. It is more of a work in progress. It does not intend to suggest a choice between inclusive schools and special schools. One single approach may not be possible as ours is a country of diverse socio-economic and geographic conditions. Nonetheless, as India gears up to actualise the Sustainable Development Goal of leaving no one behind in all areas, including education, discussion and concrete action in this direction become important.
The Right to Education (RTE) Act has made it duty-bound for the State to provide free and compulsory education to all. Prior to this, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act empowered the local bodies to ensure basic education to all. Ensuring community participation in the field of education was one of the motives for this move. In this context, the SDMC got to run 568 primary schools after the trifurcation of unified Delhi Municipal Corporation in 2012. Of the two lakh fifty thousand students enrolled in SDMC schools across the four zones of Delhi, 1,027 are CWSN. Yet, the focus on enabling resources for people with disabilities has been grossly inadequate. We need to read RTE Act in conjunction with various international declarations and conventions and Right to Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016 in order to understand the background of the enrolment of CWSN in SDMC schools.
The Salamanca Declaration in the 1990s, to which India is a signatory, explicitly advocated inclusion of CWSN in all educational institutions. The UN’s Convention on Rights with Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2006 became the first international treaty to categorically espouse the right of persons with disabilities (PWDs) to an inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education on par with others in the community they live in. By ratifying the said treaty, India committed itself for full and equal participation of CWSN in its educational endeavour. The commitment is manifest in the 2016 RPWD Act.
The RPWD Act stands for accepting PWDs as a part of human diversity and humanity. It is emphatic on the fact that quality and inclusive education for CWSN is a right and not a luxury to be “dispensed with”. Section 16 of the Act authorises “government and local authorities to endeavour that all educational institutions provide inclusive education to children with disabilities.”
Efforts by SDMC helped in increasing the number of CWSN in its schools. Through its door-to-door admission drive, it tries to reach out to CWSN along with other children and ensures their enrolment in neighbourhood schools. Once the asset is created, it comes to serve a much larger purpose than what was originally conceived. As schools serve as polling booths during elections, a majority of the SDMC school sites (especially the newer buildings) have disabled-friendly toilets and ramps as per directions of the Election Commission. At present, 182 special educators are working in SDMC schools. Correspondence is on with recruiting authority to fill up the vacancies of special educators for different categories of disabilities included in RPWD Act. Meanwhile, the existing special educators, by catering to the special functional, academic, behavioural needs of CWSN, are acting as a bridge between them and their teachers and their schoolmates as well as providing counselling to their parents.
While SDMC has been paving the way for inclusion in education, the road to be travelled is long. There are many gaps in the system. To make education truly inclusive, it requires the partnership of teachers, parents, government officials and civil society organisations. One suggestion is that a headquarter-level resource centre may be established in the beginning, which can be further expanded as one centre per SDMC zone. The role of these centres can evolve as per need-based analysis through constant interaction with teachers, special educators, CWSN and their parents. These resource centres would provide counselling and pedagogic support for teachers and special educators by keeping in mind the unique need of each CWSN. Teachers and special educators could learn from each other’s best practices through their fortnightly focused interactions. The centres would also provide counselling and guidance to parents towards creating an enabling 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 praiseworthy examples of resource centres playing a crucial role in providing active academic and technological assistance as well as psycho-emotional and legal support to PWDs. The Xaviers’ Resource Centre for Visually Challenged in St. Xaviers’ College, Mumbai started functioning as an in-house support system for students with disabilities. Learning through the interactions with various stakeholders in the course of time, it has supported children, their teachers and parents by equipping them with disabled friendly ways of studying subjects like mathematics, science, physiotherapy and the like. Similarly, the central library of Jawaharlal Nehru University houses a well-equipped unit with a number of computers with print-disabled-friendly softwares and scanners. While the latter is creating a physical space for PWDs to pursue academics, the former looks into the needs of CWSN on a case-to-case basis. However, both these and many other resource centres are contributing to making the educational system and educational spaces conducive and inclusive of PWDs.
The legal mandate is clear. A roadmap is in place. Continuous effort is now needed to take inclusion beyond socio-economic concerns. The education system must adapt and respond to the diverse needs of CWSN. The participation of civil society groups and other private players should be actively sought in order to mobilise resources, both financial and human. These efforts would go a long way towards ensuring that inclusive quality education is a reality in every SDMC neighbourhood school.
The writer is director, education, South Delhi Municipal Corporation