Friday, April 19, 2013

Don’t disable her right to go to school

Don’t disable her right to go to school

Anupam Ahuja

A recent amendment to the Right to Education Act legitimising home-schooling may lead to children with disabilities being “pushed out” of the system

Let us begin by listening to Mira’s story.
When I learnt that I have been granted admission in the college of my choice, fear of being part of the “rest of the world” gripped me. Though confident about my academic abilities, I was terrified at the thought of how the “others” would react to me: a cerebral palsy wheelchair user with a speech difficult to comprehend and a drooling mouth. Would they look at me with “poor you” written all over their faces? My early life experiences came back as a vivid flashback. We belong to a minority community of scavengers, lived in poverty and I remember being teased in school on account of my disability and background. Despite this, I learnt to take the insults in my stride. I was a keen learner and was admired for my learning abilities, though silently.
As I finished primary school, suddenly the world changed. I was asked to leave school as parents of my classmates had raised objections about my “peculiar characteristics”, in particular the drooling (which would spoil my books and clothes). A big fuss was created even after my mother, on being asked, had unconditionally signed a declaration absolving the school authorities of all responsibility in case of a mishap! I was forced to continue my learning in a home-based education programme under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. A special educator who my classmates called “the teacher of the mad children” came once a month to teach me for two hours. However, my class five teacher voluntarily continued to teach me regularly at home and, with my mother, worked hard to also seek support from other teachers/institutions/agencies. Eventually I completed my schooling through the open schooling system.
As I reflect, I wonder had my school teacher not been there would I have continued my education despite being “pushed out of the school”! I remember feeling very sad seeing my sisters go to school and on coming back narrating how they spent their day studying, playing and having fun. I was not allowed to go out in the locality where we lived as my grandmother felt that if people saw me, it would spoil the marriage prospects of my two elder sisters. I know she loved me but her actions made me feel miserable and sometimes even unwanted.
Many children with disabilities (not “disabled children” as they are children first and the disability happens to be one of their many characteristics) like Mira (name changed) have historically been excluded from mainstream education. Legislation has played a crucial role in changing this scenario. Parliament recently passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. This Act has been amended lately. Also, India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which mandates equal rights, outlines non-discrimination in the context of disability and inclusion. How have these moves impacted on children with disabilities like Mira who have been “pushed out” of the system and many others who have been invisible for too long?

Mixed response

Most often when we talk about educating a child, we think about school and believe that true learning can only take place within the four walls of a formal classroom. However education occurs in many different forms and environments. The recent amendments regarding an option for home-based education for children with severe and multiple disabilities are based on this latter outlook. The amendments have received a mixed response. What are the implications for children with disabilities like Mira? Although the law does give a choice and an option for home-based education to parents, did Mira’s mother really have a choice? Parents of children with severe and multiple disabilities are particularly vulnerable because society often does not see the point of their child going to the school and thus may not provide the required support. Parents, particularly those with meagre resources, have an unequal relationship with the system and this is evident from how their children are “pushed out” of the system more easily. Again Mira’s story is an example in point.
Post-amendment, voices have argued that home is the natural and first place for life-long education for all children and thus why should we legally legitimise it for children with high support needs? If we are legitimising it, then why only for children with high support needs, and not for a child who is excessively shy or for a child with a different learning style? Should they also not be given an option? Why do we not think about asking children their own choice for the type of schooling they want to opt for? Should they not have a voice in a matter that affects their life?

Objective

Is education only for personal gain or does it also offer benefits for the general growth of an entire community providing a place for children, youth and adults to interact, socialise, and unify societies? If we agree with the latter, then clearly home-schooling cannot really provide for this goal. Having ratified the CRPD, will categorising children as those with “high support needs” or not be appropriate? The Convention sees disability as part of human diversity and therefore persons with disabilities as equally valued members of society. It underscores the fact that disability is not just a medical issue. People become disabled because of all the social, cultural, economic, political and other factors that prevent them for participating fully in society.
We also need to consider what are the opportunities available for children with disability from the large population of migrants. Who would identify and certify the children as severely disabled for providing the home-based education programme? What would be the kind of curriculum and standard of pedagogical principles followed? How often will these children be visited and by what kind of professionals? What kind of support will parents entrenched in the daily grind of making ends meet be able to provide? Furthermore, are we in a position to provide the required support such as rehabilitation services at home, social security for the family, and personal assistance for the child everywhere in the country? Who would monitor them if they are abused or given corporal punishment? How will the children in home-based education access the midday meal or other such incentives? Will not the state be shirking its responsibility to improve mainstream education systems to better respond to differences and diversity of learning and learners if we start labelling children as “uneducable” within the education system? There is also a possibility of misuse. For example the parents of a partially deaf girl or a girl with low vision may not be able to escape the inclination to opt for home-based education possibly due to social or financial constraints. In addition, discrimination often has multiple dimensions such as a girl child with disability who may find herself “doubly disadvantaged” on account of her gender and disability and may remain uneducated for life.

Towards inclusion

Home-based education may have a negative or perhaps even a regressive impact on teachers’ attitudes as the responsibility to address different learning needs is passed to special educators in-charge of home based education. This will mean moving away from the principles of non-discrimination and inclusion. Many argue that the current regular schools do not offer any relevant service for children with high support needs. A few feel that children with multiple disabilities, low functioning intellectual disabilities, the deaf-blind, the autistic, and others such as those with a high level of osteoporosis will definitely need the home-based option. The counter argument is: how can systematic changes be planned if these children remain hidden at home unseen, unheard and unknown to anyone? How will children learn to live together, respect differences and diversity and realise each other’s strengths and weaknesses? How will we move towards building inclusive societies if our schools are not inclusive?
Home-based education cannot be the only alternative. It can at best be considered a preparation for including children with a strong will to bring them back into the mainstream. We will know how progressive this move is as we build research into the implementation of the RTE Act with its amendments. What stands out clearly though is the need for concerted efforts to make provisions in the Act a reality. And to make parents having to sign declarations absolving schools of their responsibility of children with disabilities (as Mira’s mother had to do) an action of the past. Let us join hands to make schooling and life a happy experience for all children, acknowledging, respecting and celebrating diversity as enriching humanity and a normal aspect of society. Our efforts ought to be geared towards “All for the children, for all the children including Mira”!
(Anupam Ahuja works in the Department of Groups with Special Needs at the National Council of Educational Research and Training and has three decades of experience in the field of education. ahujaa56@gmail.com)

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