When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the beginning of a nationwide lockdown on March 24th, few could have imagined how long it would eventually last or how widespread its impact would be. Millions of teachers and schoolchildren across India would attempt to shift their classes online as seamlessly as possible, with varying degrees of success. Much has been and will be written about the effects of the pandemic on Indian mainstream education. However, even within the educational community, there are those who have faced far steeper struggles in attempting to adjust to this new reality.
Special needs for Special Needs Children
This week, we spoke to two professionals in this sector about how students with special needs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as how India’s new National Education Policy attempts to address systemic issues in the way such students have been taught in India.
The first professional we spoke with was Mrs. Deepa Shetty, a teacher in Mumbai who has been doing voluntary work for the last 4-5 years with special needs children. Her most recent position was as a Special Educator and Social Worker at ADAPT (Able Disable All People Together, formerly The Spastics’ Society of India), India’s first special school for children who suffer from cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities. She worked in ADAPT’s Skills Development Centre (SDC) in Chembur and taught Home Science and English.
The second professional we spoke with was Mrs. Chitra Lakshman, who holds a Masters in Social Work from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and has been in the field of disability management for over 25 years. She was also working at ADAPT’s SDC in Chembur as a Placement Officer, assessing students for enrolment into the centre, and helping those enrolled find internships or placements with various companies.
SDC’s work mainly revolves around a combination of scholastic and vocational education for students above the age of 17. There is an emphasis on learning practical skills and getting the students ready for employment and integration into mainstream society. SDC also helps students get internships and placements with companies upon completing their education. A variety of psychological and physiological assessments, as well as assessments of their parents and overall environment are done to tailor the programme to their needs.
This objective, which is a challenging endeavour in normal times, has become even more challenging during the pandemic. Shifting special needs children from physical classrooms to online classes came with numerous challenges. As for the kind of enrolment and placement work that Mrs. Lakshman oversaw, that was completely frozen once the lockdown started as there was no way to take that online, particularly with the economy stalling.
As Mrs. Shetty says, “For a month, we went by trial and error and tried to do things as normally as we could. However, most of the families we work with are below the poverty line with no broadband internet connection, instead relying on their mobile data. Parents who were working, sometimes as nurses, had to become more involved in their children’s education. Some families had to move back to their villages, making things even more difficult. Motivating them to put in that extra effort to educate their children was a challenge”.
Furthermore, the students, whose regular routines at the SDC were disrupted by the pandemic, became restless. This not only took its toll on their parents but also disrupted the entire learning process. Catching the student at a time when they were willing to learn demanded that teachers such as Mrs. Shetty showed patience and flexibility to adjust to their new learning habits. Autistic children with sensory issues suffer acutely during this pandemic, as they do not even understand why people are wearing masks and cannot comprehend the wider circumstances. “They’re having a tough time. The ones who are severe on the spectrum have become more aggressive and it gets tougher if the parents are working as the child does not know what to do with themselves”, Mrs. Lakshman says. Many students struggled to the point that many of their families withdrew them from the programme entirely.
To mitigate this, fewer modules were taught, and online classes were kept short to ensure the students’ focus was not diverted. Furthermore, students were receiving more individual attention to ensure they learnt properly, as making them sit even for 10-15 minutes in front of a screen was very difficult. Even though online lessons have helped bridge the gap somewhat, both Mrs. Shetty and Mrs. Lakshman agree that the sense of community these students get from their regular routines is very important to them. As Mrs. Lakshman says, “that (socialisation) is one aspect we were definitely missing out on. Online classes can fulfil the bare minimum requirements but technological solutions won’t be sustainable in the long term. In-person learning is vital, and if the students can see and hear their teachers properly, they become very happy”. Digitisation of learning may bring out some net benefits but as Mrs. Lakshman ruefully points out, “some people have suffered more than others”.
National Education Policy Highlights
The National Education Policy makes several welcome commitments to providing “one-on-one teachers and tutors, peer tutoring, open schooling, appropriate infrastructure, and suitable technological interventions to ensure access can be particularly effective for certain children with disabilities” and even commits to enabling children with disabilities to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the Foundational Stage to higher education, explicitly endorsing the principle of inclusive education championed in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act of 2016. Points 6.11 to 6.14 in the Policy go into detail on the resources that will be committed to helping children with disabilities in terms of school choice, teacher training, assessment, curriculum design and so on.
However, as Mrs. Lakshman says, “They talk about inclusive education but many of the schools don’t do justice to the system. It is important to sensitise the mainstream community about special education as it is a tough world for special needs students. They rarely get included in anything. I have seen 10-12 special needs children admitted in mainstream schools and then not get the attention they need after admission. The implementation has been very bad, and it can feel very tokenistic at times. The policy says all the right things but the intent and action have to match”.
A general lack of well-trained teachers in India makes the problem of finding well-trained special needs teachers even more acute. Mrs. Lakshman elaborates, “1 teacher to 15 special needs students is not an acceptable ratio. There needs to be at least 1 teacher for every 2 or 3 such students. Special needs teachers must be trained properly. They need to have the passion for learning about how to teach different kinds of students. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work as every student is different. Sincerity on the ground would be a start in mitigating this problem. Inclusive education needs to be taken more seriously”. Mrs Lakshman further emphasises her point by noting that organisations like ADAPT exist to do what others cannot or will not do. “Had regular schools done inclusive education properly, special schools would not be needed. ADAPT itself is trying to be an inclusive educator”, she says.
There has been progress in the treatment special needs students receive across the country, both in terms of policy and on the ground. As Mrs. Lakshman notes, “the opportunities for special needs students have definitely improved in terms of workplace integration through internships and placements. Companies are more open nowadays and there has been progress but it’s not enough. Some students may have other challenges with regards to travel or behaviour. Disability may only be one aspect, which may be compounded by other factors”.
Getting funding for special needs education in India is even more difficult nowadays due to the life-and-death nature of the times we live in. In a country where access to meals has been a significant driver of education in rural areas before the lockdown, the pandemic has transformed education for marginalised communities into a luxury good. Given the struggles many special needs students are undergoing in Mumbai, one of India’s largest cities, the outlook for such students in far more remote areas is probably even more dire.
Therefore, as the country attempts to recalibrate its priorities and grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term damage of the disruption to special needs children’s education is something that should not be underestimated, or worse, ignored.
Mrs. Chitra Lakshman
Mrs. Deepa Shetty