Last month, I went to an NGO in north Delhi with a friend who worked there. Coincidentally, on that very day, the CBSE class 12 results came out. The mood there was very jubilant because more than five visually challenged students associated with the NGO got more than 90% marks while a few others got more than 80%. Though these performances would not be considered extraordinary in normal circumstances, these were not ordinary students. Most were from extremely poor backgrounds, were orphaned and were differently-abled. They were continuously facing multiple social stigmas at the same time.
One of the students, Raushan, told me that he was not upset about being differently-abled, but he did mind was when people mocked him for his disability and made insensitive remarks such as. "Yeh andha kya padhega (What will this blind boy study)?" He said that after getting more than 90% in board exams, he has given a fitting answer to the naysayers. "It's the best reply," he said.
He's not the only student who faced hostility from others. Another student Santosh Kumar told me that even some of his relatives think of him as a liability on the family because he is visually challenged. Scoring well in the all-important exams felt like a major accomplishment, a counter.
Hearing the stories of success and struggle of these differently-abled students, I wanted to know more about the difficulties and stigmatization that people with disabilities face. I asked the NGO if I could meet a few more students for a better understanding of their lives and the hardships they face on a daily basis.
The students maintained that whenever a teacher was sensitive to their needs, they performed better, sometimes exceptionally well.
For the next one hour, I talked to more than 10 students on many issues covering their life, career, education and society in general. Interestingly, I found a similar pattern in their thought process. Nearly all of them complained about the existing education system in India, which according to them, didn't cater to the needs of differently-abled students.
One of the students, Rohit, said, "In a class where differently-abled students are in the minority, the education imparted by the teacher is the same, which can be said to be holistic in nature, but it's not inclusive."
When I asked him to explain this point, he said that the needs of differently-abled students are different from those of their classmates. They often lag behind in their pace of learning and this affects their exam performance. What most of them pointed out was the need for inclusive education that takes into account the needs of different students.
Another important thing that came out of the discussion is the impatience of most of the teachers while dealing with them. They mentioned that most of the teachers expect them to learn the lessons and understand the complexities of a subject in the same manner as students who are not disabled. They also noted that not all teachers are this way. They maintained that whenever a teacher was sensitive to their needs, they performed better, sometimes exceptionally well.
If the teachers I spoke to are right, then can differently-abled students do well only in "special schools" where there is "specially trained" staff?
Even in the NGO, they couldn't get regular English tuition because the pace of teachers didn't match with that of the student, and, as a result, most of the teachers left the NGO after giving only a few classes. When I discussed this point with some schoolteachers they replied that it's not easy to teach these students because "specially trained teachers" are required to cater to their needs. This reply raised bigger questions in my mind.
If the teachers I spoke to are right, then can differently-abled students do well only in "special schools" where there is "specially trained" staff? But doesn't this mean segregating disabled students from the mainstream? Is this the idea of inclusive growth that the government and NGOs keep talking about? Do we want to create a society where differently-abled people are kept segregated because the mainstream is not ready to come out of their comfort zone?
I didn't have any concrete answer to these questions and therefore I turned back to the students. They provided a thought-provoking answer. They said, a differently-abled teacher could help in "bridging the gap" between the differently-abled students and the mainstream because he/she would be sensitive to the needs of everyone in the class. They also said that today, a majority of teachers are failing in their duty to bridge this gap.
A differently-abled teacher could help in "bridging the gap" between the differently-abled students and the mainstream because he/she would be sensitive to the needs of everyone...
Now, the fact remains that there are very few disabled teachers in our schools, colleges and universities. Our society is unwilling to relinquish the charity-based approach in accommodating differently-abled people. There is not enough emphasis on their education and integration into the workforce. We have a very low number of differently-abled graduates and an even lower number of postgraduates and PhD holders.
The reason behind this is the fact that out of the 3% reservations mandated for the differently-abled population, both in educational institutions and jobs, only 0.5% of the seats have been filled in the past 20 years (since the provision of reservation for this category came for the first time in 1995). About 0.56% seats in higher education go to differently-abled candidates though there's reservation to the extent of 3% in public institutions; of this 74.08% are male and 22.70% female.
In this bleak scenario, the NGO students gave me a sense of hope when they said they wanted to become teachers so that other differently-abled children would not have to face the challenges they did.
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