Access to quality school education is not a privilege but a fundamental right of all children in India, and that includes children with special needs. Various factors including inherent and long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment including conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, and mental impedance, result in their capacity for grasping, learning and understanding to be slowed. As such, they may have problems with everyday schoolwork, communication or even behavior. Over the years, despite the government introducing constitutional and statutory provisions such as Article 21 A and the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act with the latter specifically mentioning children with disability, many children with special needs and others have remained outside the mainstream educational system. Quite alarmingly, according to a UNESCO report, nearly 75% of children with various forms of disability do not attend school in India. In addition to the government initiating several measures in recent years, the subsuming of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 under the RTE Act has been a marked improvement for children with special needs.
What more can be done to ensure that all children grow and live with dignity, develop and even achieve self-realization while also being given complete care and protection in the country?
Set appropriate expectations
First, the government and more particularly parents must treat Special Education Needs (SEN) children just as they would treat any other child. This means that suitable expectations from the child must be established. This would enhance the child’s self-esteem and development process. Children must be made to believe that they are capable and indeed exceptional in many domains.
Early assessment by professionals
Second, at the slightest inclination that a child may have special needs, parents or guardians must seek immediate professional help. It is also important to establish the type as well as the extent of ‘limitation’ that a child may have, this is critical to their classroom learning outcomes and progress. Once an assessment has been carried out by a team of specialists, the child should be placed in an appropriate educational setting. While children with mild and moderate disabilities may be integrated with regular schools, those with severe disabilities could be placed in special schools. Denial or oversight by parents or teachers in recognising symptoms of SEN at an early age could make the child’s struggles harder and could also aggravate their condition.
Sufficient trained personnel for the identification of special needs
Third, in addition to the second point, it is important that there are sufficient on-the-ground trained resource persons who could not only identify a special needs child but also encourage parents to address the need, including putting them in an appropriate school. The problem of identification becomes even more challenging in rural areas where awareness and professional help are limited. Since nearly 1.3 million Anganwadi workers are trained in identifying special needs children, they should in turn train personnel and conduct household surveys on out-of-school children across the country.
Address the shortage of trained special educators
Fourth, it has often been observed that there is an absence or shortage of special educators trained in addressing the needs of SEN children in mainstream schools. For special needs students belonging to the mild category and placed in regular mainstream schools, the lack of training in ‘inclusive education’ of teachers makes it a rather difficult learning experience for the students, thereby impinging their understanding of ‘basics’ which are essential for long-term development and maturity. Hence, it is recommended that teachers be trained in special instruction/teaching techniques specifically to fulfil the needs of SEN children depending on the latter’s individual needs.
Augment inclusive infrastructure in schools
Fifth, apart from increasing the number of schools keeping in mind the requirements of children with special needs, there must be concerted efforts to ensure that all schools are equipped with suitable infrastructure such as handrails, ramps, accessible entrances and pathways, special toilets, information and communication systems and drinking water facilities. It is encouraging to know that nearly 70% of government and government-aided schools in the country have become barrier-free now. This must also be emulated by private schools. Also, there must be sufficient user-friendly transport systems available for children to reach the school safely, including those with physical or sensory-motor limitations. Under the RTE, a school must be located within walking distance of one kilometer for children studying in Class I to V, and within three kilometers for those studying in Class VI to VIII – of the neighbourhood where children reside. Even for this short distance, there should be supportive transport available. And for students in the severe category, the provision for home education under the RTE should be an option.
Extend the provision for compulsion in RTE to parents too
Sixth, while the term compulsory has been intended for governments, administration and school authorities, parents have been left free of legal obligations to educate their children including special needs children. The government must make it mandatory for parents to ensure that their child receives age-appropriate education. While a Central Advisory Board of Education or CABE subcommittee had made a recommendation to this effect, it is yet to be implemented.
Expand the RTE to include children up to 18 years of age
And seventh, the RTE must be extended from the current 6-14 years age group of children to include those between 14-18 years of age. By most definitions, school education covers students till their higher secondary or Class XII level. Special needs children in higher age groups are left out of the ambit of RTE thereby resulting in a large chunk of the SEN student population losing out on the desired benefits.
Therefore, each child is special and needs to be treated as such. With new-age technologies such as AI and machine learning coming to play a transformative role in the way the larger school ecosystem is managed today, there is a lot that can be done to benefit students with special needs.