-The Indian Express
RTE amendment is laudable, but HRD ministry should look after special education
Last month, I attended several meetings on Right to Education (RTE) and, in particular, the education of children with special needs — and I found the usual lack of understanding about their needs. What is special education? What is inclusive education? And what is the difference between the two? These are issues that only a few countries have yet to work out. In India, there has been a huge systemic failure in this regard, a negligence that has been going on for decades. While congratulations are due to the UPA government and HRD Minister Kapil Sibal for at least ensuring that the RTE amendment went through Parliament this April, bringing children with disabilities under its ambit, mere legislation is not enough. It will gather dust in statute books unless implemented.
As I sat across bureaucrats, policymakers from both the HRD ministry and the ministry of social justice and empowerment (MOSJE) and special education experts, it became increasingly clear that the education of children with special needs was once again getting lost in a debris of institutionalised discrimination and there was a grave lack of conceptual understanding. Many had not understood the difference between special education and inclusive education. It needs to be clarified.
Inclusive education is not special education. It does not refer only to children with special needs, it refers to all children facing some sort of barrier to learning and participation in the classroom. Inclusion is improved access to education. Inclusive education is really education for all — children from poor socio-economic backgrounds (which the RTE is addressing), the girl child facing cultural barriers and children with special needs facing systemic institutional barriers. It is high-quality education individualised to each child’s needs. Children are not seen as one homogeneous mass, but individuals with their own levels of functioning, who work at their own pace. It is an exciting concept, a new approach to teaching children. Here the belief is no child is a failure and each learner’s challenge is special.
How can this be achieved? Teacher training is critical. By focusing on a handful of differently abled learners (in an inclusive class the number of disabled children never really exceeds four or five), the teacher gets skilled in handling students who have learning challenges. By recognising that changes in teaching methods can make the curriculum accessible to all children, including those with disabilities, a teacher or principal is well on the way to improving the overall quality of their school.
Inclusive education is not a disability-only issue; it is about the quality of education. It provides the impetus to blend the best of experiential and interactive instructional strategies to benefit both students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. It requires collaboration, teamwork, flexibility, a willingness to take risks and support from a whole array of individuals and institutions. Education for all cannot happen without inclusive education.
Ever since disabled children were removed from the ministry of HRD in 1966, India turned the clock back. The responsibility of their education was then transferred to the ministry of social welfare (now called the ministry of social justice). It was one of the most detrimental moves and India belongs to the 4 per cent of developing countries that rely on a ministry of social justice for the education of disabled children. The ministry has perpetuated this injustice by not making timely interventions.
There is a structural fragmentation between the roles of MHRD and MOSJE that contributes to a lack of coherence in teacher training. The MHRD is responsible for general teacher training, and the Rehab Council of India (RCI) is responsible for special needs teacher training. This is absurd. How can this happen when the MOSJE does not have education on its agenda? The RCI needs to be absorbed into the general teacher training departments in the country. The ministry should not tinker with the education of children and youth with disability anymore, considering its policies have not had the desired result. It should instead push for structural change so that all education, be it special or inclusive, and all training, be it for special teachers or regular teachers, come under one arm — the HRD ministry.
It is praiseworthy that the minister for social justice and empowerment, Mukul Wasnik, has for the first time created a new department for disability welfare. However, now that a historic amendment has been passed, it is hoped that, for the larger good of the country, he will let the MHRD address teacher education and teacher preparation. He should also not fill up the department with special educationists, but seek out people who are experts in inclusive education, principals who are implementing it.
Today, with the RTE including children with disabilities in its definition of disadvantaged children, the question is not whether they should or should not be educated but exactly how should they be educated. The need of the hour is preparing teachers and redesigning syllabi. Otherwise, the RTE would fail to bring justice to children who have suffered exclusion for years.
The writer is founder-chairperson of ADAPT