Who gets to go to school? The law books of the country say everyone has the right. Who gets to go to the school of choice? The law says, there could be no restrictions.
The UN body on Education defines inclusion as a “process which is concerned with the identification and removal of barriers’ of education and ensures the presence, participation, and achievement of all students and their diversities”. These diversities could be due to their gender, economic, social, demographic, intellectual or physical characteristics.
The face of education in J&K reflects exclusion based on these diversities. The problem is so complex that it is difficult to club each and every aspect of exclusion under a single heading. However, the most pronounced and clearly visible exclusion is the one based on disabilities.
Earlier this year, GoI announced “Barrier-free access to Education for all children with disabilities” as a translation of National Education Policy 2020 (NEP2020). Blame it on the pandemic, no aggressive steps have been taken by J&K to inculcate this provision in the school education system of the UT. Therefore, if a parent of a child with a visual, locomotor, or speech and hearing impairment seek to get him or her enrolled in a regular school, the outcome can be much predicted. Denial of admission to children with even the slightest of learning disabilities is a reality that the system as well as the population is well aware of. Autistic children, those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, stuttering, Down’s syndrome do not find a seat in a regular school with any ease, and if they do, they will soon find themselves out of the school for the difficulties faced in keeping pace with the learning.
Can the blame go solely to teachers and schools? Not really. In our education system, the teacher-student ratio, especially in private sector is such that the teachers cannot find time and space to either recognize a child with a disability or address their special educational needs. In addition, they are tasked with more work than just teaching, at pay scales that in itself are exploitative. The NEP 2020 urges that teachers be amply trained and have enough preparation to identify and address learning difficulties. These include “short-term specialization courses to teach children with disabilities and modules on teaching children with disabilities within existing programs”. The goal of these trainings will be to empower teachers to recognize and identify disabilities, particularly specific learning disabilities and fulfill needs of children with such difficulties.
There is a debate about Special Schools. While they could have the infrastructure and resources to impart better education for children with special needs, they also create discrimination and fail to address inclusivity.
In our current educational scenario, children with learning and other disabilities find themselves humiliated and mocked at, often labeled lazy, callous and distractive. There is a dire need to sensitise the educational system, not just the teachers towards the essence of inclusive education.
In this direction, the Department of School Education had started a Child Counseling and Support Cell, tasked to train teachers and identify the lacunae in the educational system in order to make inclusive education a reality. The Pandemic seems to have halted the progress of this cell. The Department of Psychology at GMC Srinagar has also been seeking to create awareness about learning difficulties and how their education and inclusion could be said in the same sentence. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of the foundations that assure children’s mental health and wellbeing says the team.
Yet a beginning seems to have been made with the collaboration of the mental health experts and the education department. In the recent past a number of activities have been collaborated by the two departments and many activities carried out across the 10 districts of Kashmir. These include capacity building programs on the topics:
1. Psychological issues among children and adolescents their identification and referral Program
2. Stress management and suicide prevention Program
3. Importance of Mental Health First Aid Program
4. Effective communication with children
5. Issues which can impact mental health of children
Ø Physical training providing MHPSS to children at schools
Ø Community outreach radio classes on the following themes
· Academic stress among school children
· Parenting during COVID
· Issues which can impact MH of children
· Adolescent issues
Ø Community outreach programs MHPSS on wheels
These activities and programs are a welcome beginning in changing the approach of the community and educational system towards schooling of children with disabilities, physical and intellectual. Much said about revamping educational system in J&K and across India, it all goes down the drain if a child is turned away from a school for not having the same pace of learning as his or her classmates.
The Government needs to institute a Grievance System where parents can register their experiences and complaints about educating a child with special needs. The focus needs to be on empowering the schools with tools, training and resources to ensure education reaches all. Today, it is far from a number of our children.