While interviewing Usha and Rupesh Bhurke at their Goregaon home, I assumed that their seven-year-old son wasn’t paying attention. After all Dev, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age two, was spinning merrily around the room, playing with Lego, and urging his parents to switch on the TV. But the moment Rupesh mentioned the name Advait, Dev froze mid-spin and announced, “Advait was absent on Monday.”
Both boys study at Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Vidyalaya, a mainstream school in Malad, Mumbai, and have known each other since junior kindergarten. Early on Advait, who has no special needs, was asked to monitor Dev’s class work – a task he took so seriously that Dev was in danger of becoming helpless without him. Now, Advait waits for a go-ahead from the teacher before swooping in to help.
Besides bonding with Advait – a feat considering Dev’s speech was delayed – there has also been a marked improvement in his vocabulary, sitting tolerance and a sharp decline in his hyperactivity. Dev’s situation is remarkable but not unique. Parents, teachers and special educators have long realized that children, when sensitized from a young age, accept differently abled classmates – incorporating wheelchairs and even prosthetic limbs into their games. As for academics, tweaking the curriculum slightly – or in severe cases creating an individualized education plan – allows these children to flourish in a regular school.
Analyzing what works has taken on a new urgency in light of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which makes it mandatory for schools to admit children with disabilities under the 25% quota for “disadvantaged groups”. A 2012 amendment expanded the definition of disability to include autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities. Though the RTE Act came into effect in 2010, activist Ashok Agarwal from Delhi describes the implementation as “tardy” and “uneven”. He regularly fields calls from frantic parents whose differently-abled children are being denied admission or ousted from government or private schools. (In 2012, the parents of an autistic boy took a Mumbai school to court because they asked that he be shifted to a special school. The case is still on.)
It’s easy to understand why many schools – already flailing under the pressure of overcrowded classrooms, rigid curricula and a shortage of staff – are reluctant to take on children with special needs but that only makes the ones that have successfully embraced inclusion all the more remarkable. In Dev’s case, for the first six months, he kept wandering around class but his teacher – despite having 40 other students – took it in her stride. “She never shouted at him,” says Usha. Similarly, Jaya Palaparti’s son Siddhanth, who has Asperger Syndrome, reached class 10 because his teachers at Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Vidyalaya in Borivali focused on his strengths (reading and mental math) and accommodated his hyper-sensitivity. He was allowed to wear sandals because socks exacerbated his sensory issues, and he wrote in print even after the rest of the class switched to cursive (kids with autism struggle with fine motor skills). Siddhanth scored 79% in his SSC boards with concessions like using a calculator and dropping a third language and is now completing class 12 through open schooling. “Siddhanth’s success encouraged the school to admit more kids with autism,” says Jaya.
Anecdotal evidence shows that it’s not just high-functioning kids who can thrive in a regular school. Harsh Shardul, a nonverbal child in a wheelchair, who has cerebral palsy, attends an inclusive pre-primary school in Aurangabad. His mother’s initial fears that he might feel ignored were soon allayed. “Once the other children got used to him, they started inventing games, they could play with Harsh like racing against his wheelchair,” said his mother.
Such stories are the norm rather than the exception at Beacon High in Khar. For the last 13 years, the school, which has special educators, counselors, a physiotherapist, speech therapist and a psychiatrist on its rolls, has been admitting children with disabilities. “I’m blessed that I have never had a child feeling rebuffed, humiliated or left out,” says principal KS Jamali, who has found that the “buddy system” – similar to the relationship Dev and Advait share -works marvelously even in senior classes.
If mainstreaming is implemented halfheartedly, a child can feel excluded. A mother of two autistic girls was forced to withdraw her elder daughter from a Mumbai school ten years ago. “She would laugh and talk to herself in class so the teacher wasn’t keen to keep her,” says the mother. Her younger daughter is now floundering in the secondary section of an IGCSE school. Small concessions like photocopied notes, regular breaks and fewer assignments would help but the school isn’t always receptive to suggestions.
Schools often recommend that a child be moved to a special school if they feel that the disability is too severe or the child is not improving. However, this notion that differently abled children thrive in a segregated environment, worries developmental pediatrician Dr Samir Dalwai, as it may allow institutions to shirk their responsibility. He feels 80% of kids with special needs can be managed in a regular school.
On the other hand, Jehangir Afshari, director of Little Angels, a special school in Santa Cruz, fears the mainstreaming push is spearheaded by parents who can’t accept their children’s limitations.
The long-term benefits of mainstreaming, however, are apparent when one meets 53-year-old Sam Taraporevala. He and his brother, both visually challenged, went to Activity High School on Peddar Road, Mumbai. “My parents felt that ultimately we had to be part of mainstream society so it was better that we prepared for it,” says Taraporevala, who today heads the sociology department at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.