Education in India: Making Room for Inclusion

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By Theja Pamarthy
9/15/2020

It was my birthday in 2016. I was teaching a bubbly bunch of fourth graders in a public school in Chennai, India, when a child slowly walked into my classroom with an enchanting grin and sparkling eyes. Nina was sent to my class despite being two years older than her new classmates, and our class welcomed her with the brimming enthusiasm of excited children. 

But no one was as excited as Nina, because it was her first day in a mainstream school. She was happy embarking on this new journey for the very first time though it was going to be a difficult path ahead, not only due to her lack of access to education, but also because she suffered from a thirty percent intellectual impairment which made learning harder for her than other children. Nina could not focus her attention on any subject for more than 10 seconds. She was not toilet-trained and thus, had to be rushed frequently to the toilet which did not make life any easier for her. 

Nina’s struggles and the abject ineptness of the school system to help her in any meaningful way drove me to research special education, only to find even more disheartening lack of awareness in the field. During my research, I found that Nina was not the only child to enter a mainstream school at 12 years of age, due to being repeatedly denied access to education through Indian public school system. It was obvious that the education policy fell woefully short in serving special needs children. 

India, which is home to 472 million children (one-third of her total population), has 2.9 million children with special needs, as observed by UNICEF. Disappointingly, according to Census 2011, just 39% of the children with special needs are enrolled in school, and of those, only 621,000 go to mainstream schools through the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). Lack of infrastructure, unaccommodating school leaders, and unfriendly exam patterns after high school are a few of the major causes for their enrollment to further dwindle from elementary to higher education. 

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), education is a fundamental right of every human being. Yet, many special children are not benefiting from the education in mainstream schools because of the difficulties they face in securing admissions there, despite the 25% reservation through the RTE Act. This creates a huge gap in learning for these already disadvantaged children. Thus, it is incumbent upon governments to ensure that children with special needs are given the opportunity of equity that helps bridge this glaring gap in opportunities. An inclusive mainstream school is more suited to the needs of children with special needs since it allows them to grow in a social environment, erasing barriers of engagement by increasing participation. It allows for a holistic education to children, irrespective of their abilities and economic backgrounds, by laying a path for them to become a valuable member of a society that respects their individuality. 

Despite the zero rejection policy of India’s grand initiative Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA, meaning “Education for All”) and the call for inclusive education through the Integrated Education for Disabled Children (IEDC) programme, the vision of achieving equal and universal education for all still remains a far-fetched dream to a large number of children in India, particularly to the children with special needs. What these children need is equity in education, not “equality in education.” This means striving to provide any and every opportunity of aid possible to help them have access to the education they deserve. This can be realized not just by adding nominal ramps in a few public schools, but with a change in attitude and sensitization of the many stakeholders toward the children’s special needs. 

The Government of India has taken many steps toward inclusive education over the past years by introducing IEDC, SSA, Universalization of Elementary Education, and lastly, the Right to Education Act (RTE). Yet, there are still schools in both rural (where nearly 70% of the specially-abled population lives) and urban areas, where some children with special needs are turned away from mainstream schools or are encouraged to go to special schools and home-based tuition. This is despite the RTE act impressing on the need for inclusivity in mainstream schooling. While the RTE act has shown the way in providing quality education in government and aided schools through school management committees, it has not met equity in terms of “all schools” because of excluding minority institutions. This means, some of the already school education deprived children are further excluded from the benefits of RTE Act. 

This dim scenario in special education is the result of a multitude of issues: lack of awareness of rights by parents, fragmentary teacher engagement, misrepresentation of student data and ineffectual infrastructure due to insufficient state funds. Moreover, even with homeschooling, limited scope is provided on the methodology and funding for the same. This has led to special education teachers doing double the work to make up for the reduced human resource. These factors create a huge gap for India in realizing inclusive education in its truest sense. 

Well, how do we bridge the gap? 

My experience at the grassroots level helped me to understand the need for a strong and conscientious governance model for the implementation of schemes through a bottom-up approach. Mandating stronger School Management Committees that include all stakeholders of the child’s life — both in rural and urban mainstream schools — and actually giving them the power to take and make decisions pertaining to the school, can be a stepping stone. It will ensure the committee can address specific needs required by the schools welcoming these children at a block/zonal level. 

Issues such as the absence of operational infrastructure like ramps, wheelchairs, special user-friendly toilets and classrooms in every school needs to be addressed on a priority basis, with the combined effort of all three ministries/departments concerned with the children with special needs. Student enrollment tracking, preferably district-wise, should be implemented rigorously across India in a phased manner to acquire unambiguous data. The growing technology usage could be leveraged as a boon in recording enrollment and attendance in real time. 

Role of teacher in the “Teach-Learn” Loop 

A teacher’s work is not merely to teach but to awaken, making the student aware of what is within and educating the heart along with the mind. 

Being an educator, working with children like Nina has taught me that in order to create a sense of belonging it is important to be equally vulnerable and sensitive to their world and needs. Pushing oneself towards child-centric teaching with the use of special child-friendly technology that is multi-sensory, and a dedicated playtime for the children specific to their ability, would go a long way in setting the right culture for their learning. Minimal tweaks to the examination structure to accommodate the child’s needs would create a vast difference to the child’s morale. 

From understanding the thin line of difference between equality and equity to believing in sowing the seeds of inclusion today to reap the fruit tomorrow, India needs not only a change in structures but a radical shift in the ideology of special ability so that many more children like Nina can get the opportunity they deserve in realizing their true potential.


Theja Pamarthy is a second year MPA candidate at New York University specializing in Public Policy Analysis. She has a background in capacity building in school education and financial inclusion for community development. She also has experience in school leadership empowerment and curriculum development. With a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering, she is interested in economics of international education policy and is passionate about equity in education, animal rights and sustainability. Theja is also currently serving as the Co-Chair of Education Policy Network and as the Managing Editor, Publications for the NYU Wagner Review. Reach out to her to discuss educational equity, diversity and therapy through art.

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