Looking the other way
Azeem (name changed), a nine year old child could not understand why his parents were crying after leaving the office of his school's principal. But he remembered that his parents had cried the same way some months ago when they had met the principal of his previous school. "You have been thrown out of this school also," his mother scolded him.
Azeem has been diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, conditions that make him lag behind his classmates in school. Even retaining him in a class for two years to give him more time to 'comprehend' the studies has not helped. The schools Azeem went to have no provision to teach Children with Special Needs (CWSN).
Sans one school in Srinagar, no school in Kashmir accommodates any child who has any kind of learning or intellectual impairment. Not just this, the schools in Kashmir have dismally failed to cater to children with sensory impairment such as vision or hearing.
On the other hand, 'Special Schools', those that are meant to cater exclusively to differently-abled children such as 'Blind School', 'Deaf and Mute School' and 'Vocational Schools' for those that cannot be helped with regular schooling have almost been a forgotten subject in Kashmir.
Although there are no estimates of how many children in Kashmir suffer from learning disabilities and conditions that make it difficult for them to 'fit' into regular schooling, doctors and experts believe the number is a significant one, running into many thousands. A recent Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) supported study by Dr Aadil Bashir, Assistant Professor of Social Work, at University of Kashmir titled "Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Rural and Urban Districts of Kashmir and Identifying Social Work Interventional Therapies" revealed that a huge number of children were Autistic, and this is just one of the conditions that can negatively impact a child's progress in school.
The prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as per this population based survey, was found to be 1 in 114 children in the age group of 3-14 years. The study, much to the expectations, confirmed that most of these children did not attend any school.
For over a decade now, policy planners and educationists have boasted of the steps taken and arrangements put in place in the direction of Inclusive Education (IE). The basic principle of IE is ensuring that a child with any disability, mental or physical, is educated along with the children without such disabilities and in a common setting. This system is meant to build a strong support base that includes school, and community, along with the child's family, to 'maximize the potential of all students'.
Much said, the concept of IE is still in its infancy all over India, and J&K is no different. CWSN find theirselves shunted out of schools, if a school has somehow admitted them. They miss out on learning, social skills and opportunities, making them less productive and increasing dependence on others for daily lives and livelihoods.
The previous Director of Education in Kashmir, Dr Shah Faesal, had committed to work towards increasing inclusiveness in Kashmir schools by opening of at least one Special Resource Centers (SRCs) in each district. These resource centers were planned to have facilities like physiotherapists, speech therapists, counsellors, and special educational tools and aids to help children overcome difficulties in learning.
The education department also started an exercise of making some sort of calculation to determine the number of such children in Kashmir to make a better attempt at planning and allocation of resources. In J&K, at least 70 Resource Persons are employed to work for CWSN under Inclusive Education (IE) component of Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan (SSA). However, in spite of this manpower, there is no provision in any school for inclusiveness of any sort.
The interventions under SSA for inclusive education are 'identification, functional and formal assessment, appropriate educational placement, preparation of Individualized Educational Plan, provision of aids and appliances, teacher training, resource support, removal of architectural barriers, research, monitoring and evaluation and a special focus on girls with special needs'. A very broad mandate indeed!
But on ground, when these specially trained resource persons are asked about their job, quite a few of them draw a blank and often use terms like 'who mentally retarded bache hote haina… unko thoda bohot padhana hota hai…'
In April 2016, doctors, counsellors and educationists pledged to come together to strengthen the framework of diagnosis and interventions for CWSN. An MoU was also planned to have commitment of Government Medical College Srinagar and Directorate of School Education to have a joint program running in all districts to identify such children and help them lead better, more productive lives. Then for months, nothing moved due to prevalent situation in Kashmir. Things seem to have fizzled out by now.
As a result of this complacency and neglect of educationists, civil societies, medicos and society at large, schools keep their doors shut to CWSN. Government on the other hand has never been able to put education and especially the education of those worth disabilities on its priority list.
"When I was in school, some of my class mates used to be beaten everyday for not writing neatly, for not being good in maths or for their sheer hyperactivity," an accomplished doctor who wished anonymity narrated.
Psychiatrists feel exasperated by the denial of parents about their child's problems. "While there are complex neurobehavioral causes for such problems, I am still not able to convince agonized parents," Dr Arshad Hussain, noted Psychiatrist and Associate Professor at GMC Srinagar said. The doctor said a number of parents arrive very late for expert help if their child suffers from learning disorders. "They are just not ready to accept because they believe, and there are reasons for that, that this was the end of the road for their child's learning journey," he said.
At DPS Srinagar, the only school in Srinagar to have a full-fledged section of the school and a huge setting for CWSN, Kusum Warikoo, the Principal said, "They (parents) just don't want to hear that their child needs help. Then after sometime, when they realize on their own that the child needs special attention, they agree for seeking help." The school has a comprehensive Special Education Needs center that is currently educating 98 full-time students apart from rendering help to many others requiring assistance from time to time.
However, this is just one ray of hope. Otherwise, child after child finds himself grounded at home, subject to abuse and ridicule of not just society but his own family as well, for 'not trying hard enough'.