A smile has no language: Education can be the biggest enabler for the specially-abled children

Are children suffering from disability kept away from mainstream education? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Access to education is the greatest challenge for specially-abled children. Lack of general awareness amongst parents and educators alike is one of the factors that hinders their academic growth. Parents of other children are not always in favour of their children studying with special children in the same class. They are thus shepherded off to special schools and hardly manage to get admission in mainstream schools.

According to the 2011 Census, there were almost 27 million people in India living with a disability - an increase of 22.4 percent between 2001 and 2011. For a population of this size, a minimum of 15 lakh special educators is required to address their needs in the true sense. Their education should be directed towards their employability in future; hence there is a crucial need to inculcate in them the required skills and knowledge.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, the disability legislation passed by the Indian Parliament, replacing the existing 1995 Act, enlists 21 types of disabilities. The earlier Act enlisted only 7 types. These disabilities include blindness, low-vision, hearing impaired, leprosy cured persons, locomotor disability, dwarfism, mental illness, autism, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, specific learning disabilities, chronic neurological conditions, multiple sclerosis, speech and language disability, thalassemia, hemophilia, sickle cell disease, multiple disabilities including deaf, blindness, acid attack victim, and Parkinson's disease.

Government Initiatives and Schemes for Special Children

How prepared are the mainstream schools to educate special children? Inclusive education is a great idea, but schools need to be equipped with the infrastructure that facilitate their education. So should teachers be specially trained! The Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 promotes the integration of disabled children into mainstream schools. The MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) has issued a notification to various education boards for appointment of permanent special educators and counsellors in schools. Some of them, including the CBSE, have made it mandatory for every school to follow this directive. The norm set for special children and special educator’s ratio is 10:1 at the primary level and 5:1 at the secondary level. This is applicable in both rural and urban schools.

The government has introduced dedicated educational schemes for special children. These include Integrated Education for The Disabled Children, Integrated Education for Disabled Children - Primary Stage, Inclusive Education for the Disabled at Secondary Stage (IEDSS), Scheme of National Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities, Comprehensive Education Scheme for Disabled Children, Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship scheme in addition to economic and employment assistance.

Free and compulsory education (RTE) is a right of every child aged between 6-14 years. It came into force from 1st April, 2010. In April 2012, the Right to Education Act was amended to include benefits for disabled children. According to this amendment, those with severe disability are entitled to receiving education at home. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) introduced by the Government of India focusing on universalization of elementary education includes special benefits for special children. Section 1 (9.1) of SSA states that ‘every child with special needs, irrespective of the kind, category and degree of disability, is provided education in an appropriate environment. SSA will adopt ‘zero rejection’ policy so that no child is left out of the education system.’ Sadly, less than one per cent of disabled children have access to education. And the girl child is often the most neglected.

According to Persons with Disabilities Act 1995, special children are entitled to transport facilities, free books, uniforms and other materials, restructured curriculum in schools, a modified examination system, and scholarships.

The government’s objective towards introducing these schemes is directed towards facilitating special children:

● To overcome their challenges
● To give a boost to their self-esteem
● To integrate themselves with the society at all levels
● To enable them to face the society with confidence
● To live a stable and comfortable life
● To make them economically sound

“Teachers, parents, community, and the society as a whole must come together to give every special child – their right to learn, play, grow and experience a happy childhood."

Every child is special, so is the varying educational need. The need of each child should be addressed differently.

Education of Special Children (Autistic) - Challenges and Solutions

Autism does not refer to one condition, but a range of conditions characterized by different challenges of communicating and forming relationships, speech, repetitive behaviors, etc. No two children diagnosed with autism are alike. Besides, they are blessed with unique strengths and differences. They differ in terms of functional capabilities. Hence, their educational needs vary too.

How can one assess the functional capability of an autistic child so that the right and best educational environment is provided? Diagnostic and psycho-educational assessment is the answer. Without these tests, the strength and weaknesses, the difficulties and interests, individual capabilities and

With love, care, and a little extra efforts, specially-abled children can be brought into the fold of mainstream education

Teachers play a vital role in the early development of the special children

needs cannot be determined. Their communication challenges cannot be termed as ‘bad’ behavior. An autistic child should undergo the following tests before being inducted into an educational program:

● Psychological tests
● Thorough evaluation of the behaviours
● Educational and developmental tests
● Functional profile

For effective imparting of education to autistic children, teachers and support staff should be specially trained. They should be trained to believe in them, understand them, support their needs, and help them realize their true potential. They should be given the facilities to play, learn, live and function in the real world at the same time undergoing therapy, behavior modification program, and training.

Education of Special Children (Visually Impaired) - Challenges and Solutions

Students with visual impairments have unique educational needs. Observation of visual elements facilitates effective learning, which the visually impaired children lack. Hence, they need to learn specialized skills. Schools should induct only certified teachers, orientation and mobility specialists to train them. Special children who are visually impaired must learn the following:

● Using Braille to read and write
● Use of optical devices and large print for effective use of available vision
● Use of screen reader to read from the computer monitor and other computer equipment and tools for digital proficiency
● Using mobility tools like long canes, etc. and undergo training in specific mobility techniques
● Understanding body language and other visual concepts for social interaction
● Learning special techniques for independent learning such as preparation of food, management of money, personal grooming, etc.
● Career based education according to age

Education of Special Children (Hearing Impaired) – Challenges and Solutions

Language development is vital as it is the basis of communication and facilitates the holistic growth of a child. Here lies the challenge for the hearing impaired to learn. Deafness does affect progress in learning. According to their degrees of hearing loss, difficulties in speech and language may vary. While few may omit high frequency sounds, few may be weak in breath and pitch control, and few in analytical power. While many may have trouble in understanding abstract vocabulary, few may have difficulties in learning to read and write.

Teachers must be trained to attend to each student's needs individually. Use of listening devices and optimizing the classroom environment to the advantage of the special children is advisable. Visual information should be used to reinforce auditory information. Besides, there should be minimal distance between the teacher and the student in class.

Challenges of Special Education in Rural and Urban Areas

Though the government has introduced and implemented several schemes for the education of special children yet a very small percentage of the total population with disability have access to education. Why? Neither parents nor the society encourages the education of disabled children. Moreover, if the children are from economically weaker sections, they are further neglected. Similar is the neglect of the girl child.

As aforementioned, for the current population of special children, a minimum 15 lakh special educators is required to

address their needs in the true sense. There is lack of trained special teachers in both urban and rural locations. The lack is more evident in rural areas as the schools put less focus on special education classes. These schools lack special education aids. Rural schools have fewer classrooms compared to urban schools. Funding and community support is less in rural areas compared to urban areas.

These challenges need to be addressed in an effective way. Awareness programs should be conducted to educate the society, parents, educators, and the community about the importance of special education for special children.

Smile Foundation’s Initiative for Education of Special Children

Smile Foundation, since its inception, has been actively involved in the upliftment of underprivileged children across the length and breadth of India in areas ranging from education, healthcare to skill development and more.

Education and empowerment of special children is another area that Smile Foundation is involved in. To achieve this objective, it operates Mission Education centres for special children in various locations across the country. These centres have specially trained teachers, including counselors, orthotic and prosthetic engineers, speech therapists and psychologists who are committed towards the overall development of each child enrolled. They ensure that each child gets the love and support they need in class as well as in the society. Smile Foundation facilitates the provision of all the necessary assistive and adoptive facilities required for the academic and holistic growth of the differently-abled children from the underprivileged sections in both rural and urban areas.

A generous smile and a gentle hug can cure many illnesses and through love and care, these children can get the motivation to make a good life for themselves. Learning is a right accorded to all, yet still denied to too many children in India with disabilities. However, continual efforts by teachers, parents, community, and the society as a whole can give every special child – their right to learn, play and experience school days.

Infrastructure support for specially-abled children is in place to help facilitate prescribed physical exercises as per the child’s needs

A class in progress at a Mission Education centre catering to specially-abled children in Telangana