Conversations around Inclusive Education in India
Updated: Apr 30
Interview by: Anhad Hundal
Score by: Inder Pal Singh http://ipsingh.net/
Picking up from the last podcast. This second series on disability highlights the issue of inclusive education in India. Anhad Hundal speaks to Sushmita Mitra, an inclusive educator in a private school in New Delhi, who has worked in the field for over two decades, Ms. Mitra shares her experiences working with children with disabilities and their parents and provides insights into the future of imparting quality education.
AH: I'm sitting here with Sushmita Mitra who has worked for over 20 years in the field of inclusive education. Thank you, Ms Mitra, for meeting me today.
SM: Thank you Anhad, it's a pleasure to talk to you about the subject, which is something that I've really put my heart and soul into.
AH:I guess my first question is, what exactly is inclusive education?
SM: The word inclusive education is actually used very loosely, especially in our part of the world. Because there are clear definitions but not something that we are very well informed about. When you see inclusive education that means that it's seamless inclusion. The child is part of the class in every which way, and is able to access the curriculum of the class, the curriculum that the large group in the class is following: what in simpler terms or in everyday terms we could refer to as the mainstream curriculum, but might require a little bit of extra support, in say, spelling or organizing his thoughts, or writing down, might be able to do it with a scribe. might be using a word processor for expressing his answers during assessments and so on. But otherwise, he is seamlessly and completely a part of a classroom that he belongs to. And that classroom needs to be an age-appropriate classroom. So it will not be inclusive if a 10 year old is part of, say, a nursery class, or a grade one class that would not be considered inclusive education.
SM: And then you have integrated education, where the child is physically part of the class. So he sits inside the classroom with the larger group of neurotypical peers, but he requires support from a special ed teacher, who you might want to call a shadow teacher, or a support teacher, in doing both his academic work and his non academic work. So, usually, this model follows the subject, the concept being done in class at any particular point, but the lesson will be modified to the comfort level of the child concerned.
SM: And then of course, you have the secluded model, in which children with any additional needs are not part of any classroom at all. They work separately, at what is usually called a functional curriculum which teaches you the basic skills required to be able to lead as independent a life as possible. CBSE and all the universities have become very, very forward-thinking in this and the CBSE has really, really taken giant strides forward to include all children, even though those with diagnoses, and documented additional needs, as well as children who are struggling because of environmental issues, or English not being their preferred language, then many of them are first generation learners coming to school for the first time. But the CBSE has really embraced every single additional need that you could possibly think of.
SM: In the school that I work in, we follow really largely an integrated model, because we do have a special education teacher in the class to support the classroom teacher and the children with additional needs. But, and very often, I get asked that, how does this work? Because you've really got two parallel centers of teaching happening in the class. I don't know how it works. Maybe we have just got into the habit of doing this. Maybe we don't know of any other way of studying in a classroom and willy-nilly everybody's been thrown into it. So somehow we've been able to make a success of it. I don't have a formula though to be able to tell you how and why.
AH: So you are saying you work in primarily integrated education?
SM: That’s right.
AH:Do you pick up elements of other models depending on different children and their requirements?
SM: Absolutely. See, I really and truly, very firmly believe that even inclusion needs to be individualized now. You've probably heard of an individual education plan for children with additional needs. So typically, what we do is that the minute a child comes gets admission in the school that I work in. We sit with the parents and we work out an individual education plan for that child for the entire year. And that plan covers all five areas of development, not just the academic or cognition, but everything; the social, the emotional, the physical, the spiritual, every aspect of it. And, that individual education plan also contains the child's plan for inclusion. So I have this child who's brilliant with music, so doesn't need to be supported in the music class, so he'll go for music on his own. At the same time, he's a disaster with art because his sensory needs are so high, he cannot bear the thought of paint or glue or clay on his fingers. There he does need to be supported, we need to modify it for him. We need to give him gloves or we need to let him make that same model with people or with ice cream sticks which do not bother his hand. So it's really each child according to his need and his strength.
AH: And what is the role of the parent in all this then?
SM: We have to work as equal partners with the parents. Being a parent is difficult, period. Being a parent to anybody is very difficult and when your child has additional needs, it is that much more difficult because the entire process is A, extremely expensive and B, time-consuming. And you have to be completely committed. Lots of marriages break up, because of this, about almost 30-40% of the parents are struggling with their own emotions with their guilt with what if, what if, what if, what if...there are so many questions in their heads? So my role is hugely, to be a counsellor to the parents, to guide them, to hold their hand, to walk them through the process. And we have to work very closely in partnership with them. because there's no point in the school working on an aspect or a concept or a skill that is not important at home, because they will then never follow up on it. So the buy-in of the parents is of equal partnership, without that you cannot succeed.
AH: Can we talk a little bit about how you sensitize the other children in the classroom?
SM: Yes, we can and we should talk about that. So, we typically have about 30 children. And we usually don't have more than three children with additional needs as part of the classroom. So the entire classroom then has 33 children. And all the way up to class one. We have two mainstream teachers in the classroom. You have a class teacher and the co-class teacher, and the special ed teacher, who then becomes part of that cohort of three adults who's supporting and scaffolding this group of 33 children. Trouble starts or the first cracks appear when they move from grade 5 to grade 6. That's a big jump for everybody, whether you have additional needs or not. Also, you're stepping into adolescence or stepping into puberty, you're dealing with your own growing up in a hundred different ways. And along with these growing up issues, there are physical changes, you're breaking out in pimples and you're becoming hairy, and you're dealing with all of that. And peer approval is just the most important thing in your life.
SM: At that point, it's not cool to be friends with somebody whose speech is say, not optimal, or mobility is not optimal, or who's not able to study or read all the things that you are reading. So that's when the first rift starts appearing. And through the middle school years, it is a struggle for both sides and that the mainstream, the neurotypical kids are, so to speak, they're also struggling because at one level they know that they're being mean, they know that they're not being optimally inclusive, but at the same time, it's a toss up between ‘me being approved and accepted by my peer group’ and ‘me reaching out to somebody else’. So that's not happening. By the time they're in grade 10, they've come to terms with their own growing up, their own adolescence, their own puberty. And we are back to being kind, empathetic, inclusive, reaching out.
SM: When we talk about inclusion for children from the economically weaker section, that is a little bit more difficult. I think that's a little bit more difficult because on both sides, there is hesitation to move forward, neither side is really confident about moving forward. And what happens is that because we have 25%, and typically about seven or eight children in each section in class, they tend to stay together. It's not that you will see them hanging around during the breaks without anyone to talk to or without anyone to play with. They will have lots of playmates. But it's sort of all of them together versus all of the others together. Play dates become difficult to do, birthday parties become difficult to do, outings become difficult to do, the moms becoming friends become difficult to do. So it really battles on a myriad different fronts that have to be one to achieve this. And I think after the initial years, both sides give up.
AH: So how did you get into this field of work?
SM: So I moved to Delhi in the year 2000. And just before 1999, I used to teach in a school in Shimla before I came to Delhi. On the spur of the moment, and while reading the newspapers one day, I saw this ad in the newspaper talking about special education and occupational therapy at an organization called SSNI. And that was the Spastic Society of Northern India. And I was enthusiastic, I wanted to do more stuff and there was a lot of opposition from the family and everyone felt that I would come home depressed because I was working with children who were not regular or normal. And I think they thought I would come back full of pity and grief and sorrow, would impact my own kids. But by then it was one of those, you know, now now that everyone has said no to me, and you've shown me a fence, now I will jump that fence, no matter what. So I went into it. And it was very, very, very hard.
SM: I was never depressed. In the two years that we did it, I was not depressed even one day. I was just amazed at this strength that people had and the difficulties that they went through...with the children we worked with, the parents we worked with. There was no Metro in those days in Delhi. So they would have changed buses with this child with cerebral palsy who had zero mobility, they would have travelled two hours to come to Hauz Khas where the institution was, for a half hour consult with us on the home program, what can be done at home..and it was an eye-opener. I had no idea ever before that, that such things exist in the world that there are children who are so compromised, so challenged, there are mothers who have given up everything to work with them, there are fathers who were working, actually hard labour eight hours a day and then coming back home and working with the children. I think that was my real education, not my own 14 years of schooling and my undergrad and my everything else. And I thought I was very privileged, very entitled, very cool. But I think I unlearned all of that, and that's where I really got educated.
AH: So being an Inclusive educator yourself, how do you evaluate, you know, the newer teachers coming in? What do you look for?
SM: See where I work, our system of hiring teachers is to go with your gut. That's what our directors always told us, go with your gut instinct. He never asks to look at a CV or, or where you've had your educational qualifications. And we've learnt in these 20 years, at least I have learned to go with my gut. And the younger teachers who are coming in nowadays are truly brilliant. They have so much to give, and younger people do have a more honest understanding of the world that we live in. Young people nowadays, are more honest, in their dealings with the world. In our times, we were still taught to sugarcoat things. But if you tell a white lie, to not hurt somebody, but these young girls who are coming in, and for a lot of them, this is their first job. So they have come to us for the very first time. And I just love the way they're excited, they're enthusiastic, they're creative, they're willing to walk like a million extra miles for the sake of their kids.
SM: However, there's a huge dearth of special educators. Huge, huge, huge dearth. I mean, we could do with like a thousand more every year, and even that would not fill in all the gaps. And under the Right to Education, every school has to have a special ed set up. So now it's difficult for the schools because how do you, A, you don't get good special educators and B, there's a huge financial implication to hiring so many extra teachers. So most schools end up with one special ed teacher on their roles, who looks after all children with additional needs, across your groups through the school. That, however, is not the ideal way of doing it. It's a beginning and all beginnings are difficult. That's why I guess the word ‘teething trouble’ came into being. And we're very proud of the fact that we're in the process of making history by giving children with additional needs they are called CWS (Children with Special Needs) are guaranteed seats in schools. That's a huge beginning. That's a huge step forward. I'm sure in time to come these little difficulties will be ironed out. But right now, there are many difficulties.
AH: But I mean, okay, a more general question, what exactly is the state of inclusive education in India today, or if you want to talk about in terms of Delhi, NCR, or a more urban setting?
SM: See we're at a very, very fledgling stage right now. And it's become mandatory very, very recently. Until a law is enacted, nothing becomes a given in any country in the world. And in the West, they're far ahead of us with inclusion because both education and healthcare are controlled completely by the government and governed by rules and laws. And you cannot afford to break those rules and laws. Like right now there's no school who can say that I will not take in a child with special needs, because then you will be derecognized. So you have to take the child in, but this is a very recent phenomena in our country. So we are making history and we have just about started. I'm sure in time to come, we will be right at the top. We have the advantage of manpower in India, which most countries lack, we just have to be able to organize that a little bit more effectively, and turn all these dreams into reality.
SM: Having money helps. Having money helps everybody, having money helps children with special needs also. Because then there are just so many extra therapies and things that the parents can do, so much more stimulation, so much more activity to help the child come up to speed. If you have special needs and you're from the economically weaker section, it is very hard. And when I was training at SSNI, we used to go for field trips, a place called Bahadurgarh, where the mothers would quite openly say that I have seven children. One of them is a child with special needs. I don't have the luxury of clothing him or giving him the same kind of food that I'm giving the others, I leave him to his own devices. It would be good if God calls him back to himself because I can't handle him. That's a huge statement for a mother to make but it is a statement from the heart because she knows that she can't do it.