Moving up the ladder of inclusive education

India’s education system cannot move towards more inclusion for children with disabilities without institutional reform.

Kirthi V. Rao[1]

It is after lunch-time. The teacher enters the fifth grade classroom and announces he will be teaching Hindi. The class pulls out the textbook and opens chapter eleven. Soon faces start rising up one by one to meet the teacher’s gaze. He reads out the lesson’s title even as there is the sound of one hand still turning the pages. Samay,[2] the lanky boy, sitting alone on the last seat of the corner row, has not found chapter eleven. He keeps turning pages on his tattered upside down mathematics book. The teacher glances his way and then begins the lesson anyway.

Ila, a diminutive girl wearing a headscarf, looks to the front and quietly pulls out torn pages from her school-bag. She crumples and rolls one page towards Anup seated at the opposite end of the carpet. He catches the makeshift ball, eyes twinkling with glee. The two roll it towards each other, while the rest of the fourth grade is busy discussing what they studied yesterday with the teacher. Two of Ila’s friends enter the classroom from the back door and laugh noisily. They speak with hand gestures for some time before the teacher notices and shouts out, ‘Ila, Don’t disturb the class!’ Ila continues to talk till the girl in front of her, turns back, and pulls at her kurta, pointing to the teacher.

While Samay has an intellectual development disorder, Ila is hearing and speech impaired. Though both have attended their rural primary school since they were in first standard, few teachers and classmates know how to include them in class.

Making education accessible for children with disabilities has long been a key concern for education policy in India. In the initial years of education policy in India, the understanding was that children with disabilities require education in either special or regular schools, depending on their need for support. From the earliest national education policy in 1968 to the NEP 1986 and its Programme of Action presented in 1992, India’s policy makers have sought to ‘equalise educational opportunity’ (NPE 1968). The child’s needs were to determine which of the multiple systems would educate them, with emphasis on integration into regular schools.

Meanwhile, policy towards children with disability underwent a global transition. The concept of inclusive education made it the ‘mainstream’ education system’s responsibility to orient itself to provide for the ‘continuum of special learning needs in any school’ (1994 Salamanca Statement). Research emphasised that such an orientation – of working with differentiated learning needs including those arising from disability – focused on the quality of teaching and learning to benefit all children (Singal 2005, 2008).

This was useful in the Indian context where multiple systems did not exist everywhere and children with higher support needs were sometimes ‘casually integrated’ in regular schools. India too made policy commitments to the ‘inclusive education’ of children with disability. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) spoke of education for all in accessible quality schools. The SSA listed priority areas for inclusive education. The Right to Education Act (RTE) 2009 was amended in 2010 to include children with disabilities.

However, regular schools operated largely as they did before. Our research in a multi-partner project showed that the separation between general and special education remains. Curriculum, teacher training, and classroom transactions in regular schools are planned differently from that in special education schools. Provisions exist for special needs teachers to be sourced into regular schools through the ’inclusive education for disabled children’ scheme under SSA. But these teachers work separately from regular teachers and belong to a different cadre of ‘itinerant’ or ‘mobile’ teachers. Thus, even while the visually impaired child may be taught Braille reading and writing and the severely hearing impaired child, sign language by these special educators, their class teachers are not trained enough to support their learning on a regular basis. The children may get aids, appliances, and medical support – but not always relevant support for learning.

This is not surprising. Though India signed on to the inclusive education agenda in the 90s, it was only last year that the Rights of Persons with Disability Act 2016 (RPWD) replaced the word ‘integration’ used in the 1995 Persons with Disability law. While ‘integration’ made few demands on the system into which children with disability were admitted, inclusive education is “a system of education wherein students with and without disability learn together and the system of teaching and learning is suitably adapted to meet the learning needs of different types of students with disabilities” (RPWD 2016).

The data collection system of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) also reflects the lack of policy focus on participation and learning in an inclusive classroom. The Unified District Information System for Education or UDISE annually collates the number, by grade and gender, of children that teachers identify and categorise as children with special needs (CWSN). Also publicly accessible is data on whether UDISE-linked schools have CWSN-friendly toilet(s), an all-weather approach road and ramps with handrails. Some information on number of resource teachers in each block, and the number of aids and appliances distributed is also available. The data is useful for tracking physical accessibility and provision of resources in general, but not for tracking participation and learning. A ramp with handrails, while useful, cannot keep Samay or Ila engaged in the class. The earlier policy focus ensured that no child is denied admission into school, in itself a significant achievement, but it stopped at the classroom door. Even when more children with disabilities like Samay and Ila do enter regular schools, they rarely have the support to actually participate in class and ultimately, learn.

One reason for the partial implementation of inclusive education could be the way in which governance is structured. Matters relating to children with disability come under the purview of different ministries. While they are largely under the purview of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, education is administered by the MHRD. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and the Ministry of Women and Child too have separate responsibilities towards children with disabilities. Shared responsibility but lack of coordination in functioning between these different departments complicates implementation of inclusion for children with disabilities.

This implementation difficulty is reflected in the silence on what seemed like a significant intervention to move the education system towards greater inclusion. The 2016 RPWD law asks the ‘appropriate government or local body’ to conduct five-yearly household surveys to identify children with special educational needs and measure the extent of their inclusion in regular schools. It lays down that such surveys should begin within two years of its enactment. However, even a year later, there is no word on these surveys or the indicators that they would track.

The commitment towards inclusive education in law would mean little if concrete and measurable action does not follow. The government’s premier think-tank NITI Aayog has called for institutional reforms, mentioning education specifically to suggest that policy related to education of persons with disability be made the responsibility of the MHRD. Without the required changes in teacher capabilities, attitudes, curriculum and teaching-learning processes in regular schools, the mandate of education for all children will be ‘implemented’ only in name. This can only be achieved when the responsibility for inclusion and tracking measures of inclusion are discussed and coordinated among the different Ministries involved.

{1} Kirthi V. Rao was a researcher at Collaborative Research and Dissemination (CORD), a New Delhi-based research group when this was written. At present she is with 3ie.

[2] All Names changed


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