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Maharashtra: Inclusion challenges

EducationWorld November 12 | Education News EducationWorld

Sixteen years ago, Maharashtra (pop. 112 million) — India’s most industrialized state accounting for 25 percent of the country’s industrial production — became the first state of the Indian Union to declare special education for challenged children a major priority and announced sweeping changes (Maharashtra has 600 special schools exclusively for children with various types of disabilities). However, despite a Bombay high court ruling in 2006 making it mandatory for schools to screen students for learning disabilities (LD) and provide facilities to them, an estimated 350,000 children with minor and major symptoms of LD in Mumbai are facing major inclusion and infrastructure problems compounded by a severe shortage of special needs teachers.

On October 1, parents of a seven-year-old autistic student (names withheld) of Mumbai’s well-reputed Jamnabai Narsee School (estb.1971), applied to the Maharashtra State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (MSCPCR) for a stay order after the school’s management asked them to transfer their child to another institution. In their application, the parents said the school insisted on their child’s transfer despite the fact that their son — diagnosed with “a few traits of autistic spectrum disorder’’ — has been a student of the school since 2007.

In a letter to the parents dated July 6, the school’s principal Sudeshna Chatterjee asked them to complete all formalities so their son’s transfer certificate could be processed. In her correspondence with the parents, Chatterjee claimed the school had pooled all resources, including paediatricians, counsellors and special educators to help the child meet the challenges of mainstream schooling. But over the past two years, the child’s condition had worsened on account of his inability to articulate his needs to his teachers. She also expressed the school’s inability to provide additional personal attention to the child, and suggested that the parents enroll him in a school for special needs children.

In response, the parents offered to provide and pay for a shadow teacher and demanded their child be allowed to complete his elementary education as per the provision of s. 3 of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which stipulates that a child suffering from disability, read with s. 2(1) of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection and Full Participation) Act, 1996, has the right to pursue free and compulsory elementary education.

On October 21, in a report submitted by a single-member expert committee, MSCPCR reserved its order, scheduled to be delivered on November 9, but ordered that the child be allowed to continue in Jamnabai Narsee School with the help of a shadow teacher for at least six months. The MSCPCR order directed the school to monitor the child’s progress during the next six months after which in case of no improvement in his learning capability, the parents should “seek an environment where he would get more personalised care’’.

According to Pradeep Havnur, advocate representing the parents, the child should be allowed to complete his education until class VIII as provided by the RTE Act. “The child’s IQ as reported by experts is higher than most other students in the class. Absorbing children with autism is no longer a welfare option for schools but a fundamental duty. The Jamnabai Narsee management should learn from other schools where special needs children are in mainstream education. These schools have been mainstreaming autistic children for years before the RTE Act was legislated,’’ says Havnur.

On the other hand, mainstream managements contend that they are unable to adequately school special needs children because their infrastructure and teachers are not equipped to do them justice. But according to Dr. Harish Shetty, senior psychiatrist at the L.H. Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai, this plea is not maintainable after the RTE Act was amended in April 2012, to include children with disabilities in the category of poor neighbourhood children entitled to free and compulsory education under s. 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act. Dr. Shetty says the recruitment policy of schools must change to ensure that the ratio of resource teachers is commensurate with the extent of children with disabilities enroled.

“Most schools hire one resource teacher for all children with special needs. This is no longer acceptable. In every school, the number of special needs teachers should be proportionate to the number of children with disabilities. If mentored properly, there is every possibility that an autistic child can complete her entire education in a mainstream school. The behaviour of a child does not matter; schools should exhibit a willingness to take care of such children. Pushing out a child with autism midway is a gross violation of her fundamental right to education,’’ says Dr. Shetty.

Contemporary India ungraciously hosts an estimated 40 million people with disabilities of whom an estimated 20 million are children and youth. For over six decades they have been hidden away and denied — or at best grudgingly conceded — their fundamental right to education. Now with the RTE Act having been amended to give this neglected minority their rightful place in the country’s classrooms, managements of all schools need to rise to the occasion.

Praveer Sinha (Mumbai)

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