Likhith, 4, used to be tied up at home, alone, when his parents went to work and his grandmother went out to graze sheep. As an autistic child, Likhith tended to run away from his home in Doddagubbi village, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He didn’t go to school unlike others his age. At noon, when his mother returned home after domestic work, she would go out to sell vegetables in a cart; she would take Likhith along too, in the cart.
That was when Candida Preetham found him. Candida, who runs the Manna Developmental Disability Centre nearby, identifies children with disabilities who are out of school, with the support of local Asha workers. She then convinces parents to send the child to Manna for individual therapy. Gradually, the child is transitioned to Englewood Primary School, an inclusive school nearby. Since last year, Likhith’s grandmother Gopiamma has been bringing him to the centre for therapy; he will be moved to Englewood next year.
Inclusive education (IE), wherein children with disabilities go to mainstream schools rather than special schools, is a major programme of the Centre’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). Under the IE programme, block-level Inclusive Education Resource Teachers (IERTs) have to conduct door-to-door surveys to identify children with disabilities who are out of school, and then enrol them in a government or aided school. Yet many children with disabilities remain outside the school system. Candida says, “I have seen children with intellectual disability or autism tied to doorposts or locked up at home, when the parents have to go to work. Some parents abuse the children too.”
As per 2011 census, out of the 13 lakh people with disabilities in Karnataka, only 30% had completed primary education. Another 40% were illiterate. In Karnataka, as in the rest of India, children with disabilities either don’t get admitted to schools, or drop out quickly. As per a UN report of 2015, 34% of children with disabilities in India are out of school, more so children with multiple disabilities, intellectual disabilities and speech impairment.
Private schools reject children with disabilities
Candida herself had faced rejection when she tried to enrol her twins with autism in private schools in Bengaluru, in 2011. The schools said they had no provision to admit special needs children. “Some 7-8 well-known traditional schools and international schools said the same. I even offered to keep shadow teachers, but they refused. Shadow teachers are people with good communication skills who sit beside the child and guide him,” Candida says.
Even now many private schools don’t admit children with disabilities. But as per RTE Act and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, schools are not supposed to turn these children away. CBSE had issued a circular in 2015 mandating schools to appoint special educators to cater to children with disabilities too.
After the rejections, Candida, a psychiatric social worker herself, managed to get her children enrolled in Englewood. She offered to be the shadow teacher for her children and to train teachers in the school on dealing with children with disabilities. “My children used to scream and throw things. Now in fourth standard, my daughter has not had a shadow teacher for the last two years, and my son has a shadow only two hours in a day. Children with learning and intellectual disabilities don’t usually need a shadow at all.” Going to a regular school has made a huge difference in the twins’ social and learning skills, says Candida.
“Inclusion is not just about education. It’s about the joy of coming to school. It also shows other children that the children with special needs have the right to sit with them in class,” she says. With Candida’s initiative through Manna, Englewood is a fully inclusive school now - about 30% of children here are those with disabilities. In addition to having shadow teachers and special educators, the school now allows students to opt for NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) curriculum after fourth standard that offers more subjects to choose from, if the students prefer so.
Englewood Primary School
Mainstream schools are often not equipped to teach children with disabilities, when they do get admitted. Revathi’s (name changed) daughter, now seven, used to go to an international school in the city. “All subjects were difficult for her to understand; she could write only half the answers. But her teacher did not say anything. When I requested some exemption for her, they didn’t agree either,” says Revathi. The child was diagnosed with an intellectual disability, and is now studying at Englewood. Revathi says she wants her to continue her education there, because, “when she is in a regular school with regular children, with the support of special educators, her behaviour changes. She learned to dress, to close the door while going to the washroom etc, on seeing other children.”
Many parents prefer mainstream schools not just because of the obvious benefit of inclusion, but also because special schools can be quite expensive.
Not enough inclusion in government schools
Most children with disabilities are from lower income backgrounds and are more likely to go to government or aided schools. While these schools don’t usually deny admission to children with disabilities, they too often don’t have the capacity to support the children. IERTs have a prominent role here. They have to visit schools that have special needs children, develop an Individualised Education Plan for every special needs child, and take remedial classes for the child individually or in a group as per the IEP.
Krishnaji Karichannavar, Joint Director at SSA, says that the annual allocation per child under IE programme has been increased from Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500 this year. “This amount is meant to cover all aspects of IE such as the cost of appliances for the child, travel allowance, physiotherapy, trainings and salaries of IERTs etc,” he says.
On the ground, there are only 3-4 IERTs per block, whereas a block in Bengaluru would have 200 or more schools. In rural areas too, a block would have at least 100 schools. It’s practically impossible for the IERTs to directly give academic support to students in all the schools. “It’s not possible for IERTs to directly teach the students, as they have to cover the entire block. They guide the regular teachers on how to teach children with different types of disabilities,” says Karichannavar.
In some schools, IERTs have not been training teachers too. At Annaswamy Mudaliar School, an aided school in Ulsoor, the school teachers were unaware of IERTs’ role in academics. The school management, by its own initiative, had started an inclusive education programme here, with the support of the NGO Association of People with Disability (APD). Fifteen children with disabilities had studied here last year.
School’s Director Ashritha Anantharam Hattangadi says that IERTs have only checked facilities, like ramps, at the school. They have also collected data on the number of children with disabilities, but have not given any classes to children or training for teachers.
In Ramamurthy Nagar government school, IERTs take classes for children with disabilities only about 2-3 hours in a month. The school has five children with disabilities, all of whom are taught during these hours. The school has teachers who have taken trainings from IERTs.
Candida says that, in her work with government schools in Kannur village outside the city, she hasn’t seen children with disabilities getting diagnosed or receiving special attention. The children would be merely sitting in the class without gaining anything from it, she says.
Mutharaju KN of APD, who works with schools on inclusive education, says that children with hearing impairment and multiple disabilities tend to drop out the most, from schools. “In a regular school, there will be 40-50 children in class, and the teacher won’t be able to focus specifically on the child with disability. We find that peers also discriminate against the child. Sometimes even government schools fail these children before 10th standard, so that the school can maintain its pass percentage,” he says.
Sandhya S, 16, a student of Annaswamy Mudaliar School who has hearing and speech impairment, says she has difficulty understanding classes. “The teacher doesn’t explain lessons separately to me during class. My friends sitting next to me say they will explain later, but don’t. I can only read what’s on the board and write it down,” she says. She can’t get tuition classes as the tuition teacher wouldn’t know sign language. Sandhya goes to APD for speech therapy, and her school too has a faculty who takes remedial classes for children with disabilities. Yet, Sandhya is not confident about passing 10th standard, and of going for higher studies. “She needs a teacher who will explain things directly to her in class, especially complex words,” says Sandhya’s mother Reena S.
“IE programme has brought many children with disabilities to school. But the success of the programme depends on how well IERTs work. They have to create awareness among parents, build peer groups for the child, constantly interact with the child and ensure her attendance, ensure the child get appliances of the right fit, and even get donors for additional financial support,” says Padmini (name changed), a Bengaluru-based government school teacher who was formerly an IERT.
Free appliances go waste
SSA holds medical camps for children with disabilities annually, and provides free appliances to the children. Padmini points that the camps are held in June-July, but appliances reach the child after another 5-6 months only. “By then, the child would have grown and her measurements for appliances like crutches would have changed. Also, to give hearing aid, doctors in the camp would only measure the extent of hearing impairment. They don’t take a mould of the child’s ear. Without it, the child would get a standard size hearing aid which won’t fit well and would be irritating,” she says. If parents themselves get a mould of the child’s ear taken from some other facility and give it, SSA would give a hearing aid of the right fit. “But the parents of most children don’t know so much. So the IERT has to take initiative and get parents to do these things,” says Padmini.
She says that even after getting the hearing aid, IERT has to give speech therapy to the child by herself or by coordinating with an NGO, so that the child becomes comfortable with the appliance. “Therapy is similarly needed after the child gets crutches or other appliances too. Else, the child may not use it,” says Padmini. She says that many IERTs don’t work so proactively.
Elsy Gurupatham, teacher at Annaswamy Mudaliar School, says, “Students’ measurements are taken and products are delivered directly later. Eventually, very few students use the appliances as they are painful and uncomfortable. Sometimes a child gets two callipers for the left leg, or the calliper is too big. Last year, the appliances didn’t come for the whole year as well.” Ashritha says that the quality of government-provided appliances is compromised. Hence, in addition to government appliances, the school also takes the support of NGOs to provide appliances.
Making schools accessible is a major component under SSA, but in many government and aided schools, accessibility exists only for namesake. An access audit of Ramamurthy Nagar Government School by APD last year had identified multiple issues. Thresholds to classrooms made access difficult for children using wheelchairs and crutches. Wash basins and toilets, and the blackboard in classrooms, were also inaccessible for wheelchair users. Gradient of the floor also prevented the smooth access of wheelchairs. APD had then supported the school to become accessible.
Same is the case with private schools. Farhana Banu, mother of 10-year-old Navaas, carries him to his classroom on the third floor of the school building every day. Navaas, a third standard student at the Indira Memorial School in DJ Halli, is the topper in his class. Because of cerebral palsy, he has difficulty walking and climbing stairs. “His classroom is on the third floor, but toilets are on the ground. So I carry him up and down the stairs four times a day - once in the morning and evening, and during lunch time to take him to the toilet,” says Farhana. She’s unsure how Navaas can continue his studies. “I want to move him to a different school, but there is none nearby. If I move him to a school farther away, we will have to go by auto, which costs too much.” She says that Navaas’s father is not quite interested in getting him educated because of his disability.
Already, Navaas’s younger sister 8-year-old Ayeshabi, who also has cerebral palsy, is not going to school. “I can’t carry both the children over stairs, so I couldn’t take her to school. Twice, I have asked the nearby anganwadi to take her in, but they refused, saying that she was weak and could fall, and that they can’t take responsibility for her,” says Farhana. She herself has taught Ayeshabi to write alphabets and numbers so far.
Farhana with daughter Ayeshabi
Like Farhana, Sumathi, mother of 10-year-old Roopesh Kumar, too carries Kumar to his third floor classroom in Indira Memorial School up the stairs daily. Sumathi says she is unable to go to work as she has to go to the school in the morning, noon and evening.
Sumathi with son Roopesh
Lack of access to schools is a major reason why children with disabilities drop out, says Guru Prasad S, Assistant Director (Education) at APD. APD is part of the Advisory Board of state SSA. “Most villages in Karnataka have schools upto 4th or 7th standard only; after this, to continue studies, children have to go to the next town. They won’t have accessible transport facilities to go to those schools, and parents can’t afford to travel long distances daily to drop them either. So there is a sudden dropout after 4th and 7th standards,” he says.
Guruprasad says that another pattern is girls with disabilities dropping out after 6th standard due to the lack of accessible toilets. “Toilets in most government schools are locked, have to be accessed by stairs, have no running water or are too congested for children with disabilities.” Unlike in Bengaluru, in rural areas, getting appliances and other facilities for rehabilitation is also an issue, he says.
Only by addressing these challenges can schools become truly inclusive.