Aishwarya Rao is from Coimbatore and had a comprehensive and progressive upbringing surrounded around inclusivity and innovation in modern Indian educational practices. She has a Bachelor’s in Business Management and a Master’s in Education from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Since she took on the role of Director in 2011, her focus has been on implementing new ideas and revolutionizing the Indian education system to better suit the modern Indian. She has designed and initiated various workshops and programs, namely Mommy and Me, The Little Reader, Talent Week, Just Us Two, Feast of Flavours, and the invisible quotient.
Recently, a school principal won plenty of hearts on social media for penning an immensely heartfelt note. Addressing the note to all parents, the principal wrote, “Dear Parents, classes are almost starting and I want to ask you for a favor. Sit down with your sons and daughters for five minutes and explain to them that being very tall, short, chubby, skinny, black, or white is not a reason to make fun of anyone. That there is nothing wrong with wearing the same shoes or sneakers every day. Explain that a used or broken backpack carries the same dreams as a cart or a character. Please teach them not to exclude anyone for “being different” or not having the same possibilities as they do. Explain to them that teasing hurts. Explain to them that they go to school to learn and NOT to compete, NOT to criticize, NOT to humiliate. Explain to them that they and their classmates are worth the same.” A subtle underlying message here seeping into the schooling system is that the world is rooting for inclusivity.
Learning can be a difficult process for some students, but it can be especially challenging for students with one or many disabilities. When we talk about disabilities, they can cover a broad spectrum ranging from physical, cognitive, intellectual, emotional, invisible, and undiagnosed disabilities. They can also be mental and/or sensory perception disabilities. The degrees of difficulties faced by students may vary but the primary problem remains the same – lack of inclusivity. Differently abled children the world over, are subjected to bullying in schools, and more often than not deprived of opportunities. There is a dire need to accept, and include them as part of the conventional way of living in society. They are more than capable of doing everything and have similar human rights to others.
Awareness about the importance of education for these special students must be created among educators and institutes so that they in turn can motivate the students to learn and grow. While there has been a wave of educationists bringing new-age techniques to the education system, there is much to be achieved.
Acceptance: The First Step towards Awareness
The first step towards awareness lies in accepting the problem, while awareness will aid in effecting changes in basic amenities for children with disabilities, education being at the helm of it. Over the years, in multiple conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents, a fear of upsetting the existing balance within the education ecosystems has been observed. We must realize that accepting the need to change isn’t a sign of failure. If we can only look at change as an upgrade, we can foster talents and uplift the lives of specially-abled students.
Accessibility is a Priority
Among the prominent challenges for specially-abled students is accessibility. Schools and colleges in India, heavily lack infrastructural, and transportation accessibility. Even basic infrastructure such as elevators, ramps for wheelchairs, or tile marking for the blind is not in place to make these institutes physically sound for the differently abled. Many institutes even lack accommodation, and transportation accessibility, making maneuvering tremendously difficult not only for these children but also for their parents. As recently as 2020, in a survey conducted by Swabhiman (a community-based organization for the rights of persons with disability), 77% of students said they would not be able to cope and would fall behind in learning due to their inability to access distance learning methods. Some institutes do have an inclusive and universally accessible system, but these are a handful to find in India, which becomes a huge ordeal for the specially-abled.
Bettering the Basic Tools of Education
A holistic educational system is one that imbibes an amalgamation of traditional, vocational, and experiential education because not all life lessons are found within textbooks. Basic education today is focused primarily on textbook learning, fluency in reading, legible writing abilities, and speaking with comprehensibility. This definition needs to evolve from rote learning to look at education through first-hand access to basic tools such as braille, audiobooks, e-learning, technology-incorporated tools, global cultures, and values. According to the survey by Swabhiman, about 74% of students with disabilities said they needed Wi-fi for educational purposes, while 61% expressed a need for scribes, readers, and attendants. Not only students, but even 81% of teachers who participated in the survey said they did not have accessible educational material with them.
Breaking Stereotypes, and Banishing Stigma
We cannot deny that even in this socially aware era, there are stereotypes attached to disability that deeply stigmatize people with disabilities. Educational institutions too are affected by these negative connotations toward differently-abled students. These stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that students with different needs are given education in altogether separate institutions. Education is an ecosystem equally driven by – the school management, the teachers, the parents, the students, and the government. Breaking stereotypes and banishing stigma for the differently abled is a collaborative effort that must be shouldered by each participant at every level of the schooling system. We all must come together, and strive to become enthusiastic advocates of these children.
Compassion over Comparison
With the passing of time, the needs of students, the context of the world, and the needs of society have all changed. So, it stands to reason that the system must change for children with disabilities, as well. Each child has a unique journey. But most institutions in India fail to comprehend that, thereby carrying on the legacy of the cookie-cutter model. Poor teacher-student ratio, overworked teachers, and an overall lack of empathetic educators, also contribute to the overall dismal. As a result, a one-size-fits-all method of education falls short of an enriching learning experience that could nurture the minds and personalities of students with special needs. Children are inducted into the educational system from a very impressionable age, making the role of schools that much more pivotal. It is imperative for schools to invigorate classic experiences, arranging for first-hand interactions with people from different cultures & backgrounds for children with disabilities. This can not only induce confidence, and build self-esteem within them, but also widen their horizon of perspectives, thus making them global citizens in the times to come.
Centre of the Ecosystem: The Student
Differently abled children have a massive capacity to empathize, think, ideate, create, and impact their surroundings. As parents, schools, and teachers, we must create a conducive environment for these students with special needs that lets them take charge. The key is letting the student be the center of this ecosystem. To tap into the potential of these students, individuals right from the leadership down the hierarchy, to affiliates, must each be involved in bringing in new structures and approaches to simplify learning processes. It is our duty to raise sustainable leaders of tomorrow and nurture each child irrespective of their abilities, to become dignified individuals in their own right. Let us walk hand in hand, and work together to elevate all our children to new heights.