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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Waging a constant battle for acceptance

Will mainstream education for the disabled remain a utopian dream or is it possible to convert it into reality?

No alternative to mainstream education: Vinayak Kamat at work.

PERHAPS we can liken it to multiple fractures. Very slow healing, quite painful and limiting freedom and development.

This is a metaphor for the Disability Act 1995, and the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Inclusive Education of Children and Youth with Disability, tabled this year. Ten years after the Act came into being, less than one per cent children with disability get education of any kind.

Collective effort

Different disability groups from all over India have come together to make sure this Comprehensive Plan is implemented. Ten years ago, the Act was a small but significant milestone, but the movement slid back into inertia. Perhaps, for the first time, a collected effort is being made for inclusive education.

Javed Abidi, Executive Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP), says, "The biggest mistake we made was we never thought of each other. We were weak and marginalised and, worse, we were disorganised. With in-house unity, sensibility and understanding, we will be a stronger voice."

Once this Plan is worked out and put in place, mainstream education for disabled children may become far more accessible. But hasn't that been said before?

Vinayak Kamat, a disabled person for whom life has been a constant battle, believes there is no alternative to mainstream education.

Soon after birth in 1966, he was diagnosed with "severe to profound" deafness. He was sent to the Central School for Deaf and Mute in Mumbai as a toddler. After acquiring language skills he studied in a mainstream Marathi medium school from Standard I to X.

He completed a technical course after clearing SSC. With his parents' co-operation and his teachers' untiring efforts, he managed to sail but not without sacrifices.

Focus on education

"I gave my entire life for education. I would study the whole day and practise my speech. I did not have fun like other children who could play, go out. Sometimes it was difficult in school but I kept trying. I knew that education was my only hope. Today I work as an investigation inspector with BEST's electrical department. People sometimes don't realise that I cannot hear or cannot talk properly. It is only because of my hard work and the efforts of my teachers. It is very important to study in a good mainstream school. It prepares you for life after school," he insists.

Sandhya Apte, principal of the Central School for the Deaf and Mute, has been training and preparing children for a school life. "We teach children for at least two years — how to behave, how to carry themselves apart from lip reading and other language skills. The child has to cope with 80 other normal children. Deaf and mute children do not have language skills. To develop that is the biggest challenge. Just getting a hearing aid will not solve anything. So inclusion is not possible until special education is given in early stages of a child's life."

Mainstream schools will not only have to identify different disabilities and ways to address the children, but the syllabus and school infrastructure will also have to undergo fundamental changes to absorb and accommodate disabled students.

Sudha Balachandra of the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped says inclusive education is possible but with a "lot of homework". "We have to answer a few questions before we even start thinking of inclusive education. What strategies are to be adopted? How will the personnel cope with disabled students? Will the school understand emotional problems of the disabled? Moreover, it is very important for their peers to be sensitised."

She says a healthy debate is necessary and not a thrust policy. One way to do it is to take a block, say, one each in an urban and a rural area, and run a pilot project. If that works well, it can be replicated elsewhere. Experts say that once there is acceptance and change in attitude towards disabled, implementation will be easier. Children with multiple disabilities need more attention and their education has to be planned carefully.

Making education disabled-friendly will be an expensive affair, considering that most schools do not have lifts, ramps, or even adequate toilets.

Special school buses, special teachers, study material for the visually impaired are necessary. Activists say the initial stages will need a lot of money but it can be managed if corporates can take up a few blocks or a few schools.

In this regard, the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP) organised meetings in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and finally a concluding seminar in New Delhi. With disability rights groups, educationists and elected representatives sharing a platform, everybody is hopeful. They also presented a preliminary roadmap on Inclusive Education for facilitating the Comprehensive Plan.

If it were only about infrastructure and funds, then disabled-friendly mainstream education would not have been just a utopian dream. It has got to do with social mindset. Mrs. Apte says that though the children are more than willing to rough it out in mainstream schools, managements are not interested.

It may be a while before things look up. Despite being the Principal of a significant special school in Mumbai, Mrs. Apte was not aware of the zonal meetings or the roadmap or the Comprehensive Plan. So one may wonder if these initiatives will percolate or will they remain at a policy, an intellectual seminar and workshop level?

As different groups fight together for policy changes and executing those changes, a much bigger and complex battle of winning acceptance and inclusion from the society is staring back at the inclusive education movement.

* * *

The Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 provides for a charter of rights. To provide education to persons with disabilities, the government must:

Ensure free education for disabled person, in an appropriate environment, till 18 years.

Promote integration of disabled students in mainstream schools.

All government educational institutes, and those receiving aid from the government, must provide three per cent reservation for persons with disabilities.

Promote setting up of special schools in the government and private sectors, equip these schools with vocational training facilities and ensure that disabled students living every part of the country have access to such schools.

For infrastructure and other support measures announce schemes for transport facilities; removal of architectural barriers; suitable modification in examination system for the benefit of visually impaired students restructuring of curriculum for the benefit of all the disabled children

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