POLICY MAKERS: Meeting the Inclusion Agenda: Taking the Matter into Our Own Hands By Ankur Madan

 

Only when classrooms become inclusive spaces can education become an empowering experience. Can policies alone make the difference or do we have to engage in deep reflection on pedagogic practices? Here a concerned pedagogue undertakes this important challenge and throws light upon this extremely crucial question.

By Ankur Madan is a faculty member in the School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.


 

The passing of the Right to Education Act, 2009 in India has brought many pendant issues in the educational discourse in the country to the forefront. Among these is the matter of creating opportunities for the education of children with disabilities in regular schools. While the din on this particular issue has been far from deafening, it has generated enough interest among policy makers, researchers, and academics in
the field to initiate a dialogue on inclusive education. With enough support for inclusion in policy, it is indeed a matter of serious concern that children with disabilities still remain ‘invisible’ in classrooms in regular schools across the country.
Inclusive education as a concept has had a relatively brief history in our country.  The term came into use in the nineties when it was first applied to draw attention to its distinct nature from special education. On several occasions, it has been argued that the term has been borrowed from a Western context without developing a situated understanding of its relevance to the Indian scenario. While multiple understandings and definitions have evolved over time, it is often misconstrued as another fancy expression for integrated education. Ambiguity in interpretation, a so-called ‘medical model mindset’ that has prevailed and dominated our thinking for years, and doubts expressed about operationalizing the ideals of inclusion into practice, have all led to the delay in making any substantial progress in getting children with disabilities into regular  classrooms. While IE (Inclusive Education) has enjoyed the support of robust policy measures such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, the PWD Act, 1995, and the Action Plan of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012), to name just a few, there has been little progress on the ground, because,  as some experts note, policy too is fraught with ambiguity and incongruities (Singhal, 2014).

As an instructor of a course in Inclusive Education in a Master’s in Education programme, my students and I spend many hours debating issues related to the education of children with disabilities in regular classrooms. While questions related to why children with disabilities should be included in the ‘mainstream’ find easier resolution, we always find it hard to convincingly respond to the question, ‘how can the ideals of inclusion be operationalized?’ During their visits to different school settings as part of the field work, students often return disappointed on not being able to observe any good examples of inclusion in practice. The ‘how’ question becomes even more complex when teachers and administrators express numerous apprehensions about their inability to accommodate children with special needs in their regular classrooms. In such a scenario, it is indeed hard to make a convincing case for inclusion. In this article, I make an attempt at addressing the elusive ‘how’ question. I do so, first, by dispersing some underlying premises about IE that impede translation of the ideals of inclusion into practice, and then, by making a case for individual initiative on part of schools to participate in the inclusion agenda.

Dispelling Popular Beliefs about Inclusive Education (IE)

One of the biggest impediments to the practice of inclusion is the belief that inclusive education involves something that is different from and in addition to what is already there.  Such a belief leads to teachers and administrators viewing IE as a burden, an added responsibility which they feel they are inadequately prepared to handle. Another related perception is that the hallmark of IE is individualized education-that it involves working with special needs children only on a one to one level using specialized skills and devices. It is important to realize here that education is always a shared activity and never isolated for individuals. What benefits one, can benefit many others. Good pedagogic practices, using multiple and flexible tools and techniques for teaching are advantageous for all children in the classroom. A third and widely held belief arises from the medical model thinking wherein, we inadvertently make judgements about children’s abilities based on what they ‘cannot do’ rather than what they can do. Using normative standards, we predetermine our expectations about children’s abilities and use the same yardstick to measure achievement for everyone. Lastly, it must be understood that IE is not merely an issue of access-just getting children with disabilities to sit in regular classrooms is not inclusion. Inclusion is a process and not an end achieved by building ramps in schools. Inclusion is attained when every child’s learning experience becomes equally meaningful, empowering, and provides them with resources, opportunities and capabilities to make the right choices for their own lives (Singhal, 2014).

It is clear that our conceptualization of Inclusive Education and the premises upon which it is based are perhaps the biggest barriers in implementing good inclusive practices. Dispelling these believes is not easy as they are founded on even stronger and deeper manifestations of our socio-cultural belief systems. Imposing policy and punitive legislation on institutions and individuals without addressing the belief systems is only likely to exacerbate resistance and invite animosity from the key players. Should we then wait endlessly, just as we have already for beliefs to change before we can expect to see some discernible change on the ground? An obvious answer to that would be an emphatic NO! To my mind, at least a part of the solution lies in the problem itself. Let me explain how. In our search for good exemplars of IE practice, while we draw a blank most often, occasionally, we do come across some excellent examples of regular schools where all children learn meaningfully and each individual child is respected for his/her strengths and teachers too find having children with diverse learning needs an asset rather than an added burden.  A good question to ask perhaps then is, why does it work so well in one setting and not in another? What makes a school embrace inclusion while others continue to show resistance? In my view, schools which are able to create such conducive inclusive environments manage to do so because of their own individual initiative.In the following section I explain this further.

School Participation in the Inclusion Agenda

There is enough documentary and anecdotal evidence to show that inclusive practices in a school are most effective when driven by a clear vision, ideology and strong leadership committed to creating an inclusive environment. Hence, the envisioning of an inclusive setting begins at the school itself and need not be driven by extraneous factors such as unyielding policy measures imposed by external agencies leaving little scope for deliberation and dialogue among members of the institution. A school leader who sees value in adopting good inclusive practices can effectively influence other members of the institution to embrace his/her vision in principle  as well as practice through the democratic process of open dialogue and discussion. By clearing out misconceptions one by one and by taking appropriate measures for creating a supportive environment, this can be achieved. Most importantly, by doing so, each school would also have the freedom to translate the vision as it best suits their needs and context, inviting minimum resistance and operational concerns.

The teacher undoubtedly is the most important actor intranslating the inclusion vision into reality. It is also well-established that teachers express a great deal of apprehension, negative attitude and resistance towards including children with special needs in their classrooms. A lot of this resistance comes from their poor psychological and sociological understanding of disability,  their perception about their lack of preparedness and skills/knowledge to work with different types of disabilities, and poor availability of resources such as appropriate teaching and learning materials that can be used and adapted according to individual learning needs of children. Not to mention, large class sizes, and extra responsibilities that come with unreasonable demands on their time and energy. I doubt if anyone would challenge the legitimacy of these concerns. They are true and apply to a majority of teachers in our country, irrespective of the kind of school they teach in. Apart from the widely prevalent beliefs about IE discussed earlier which undoubtedly form the basis for teachers’ negative perceptions, another obvious contributing factor is that in our teacher training programmes (pre-service as well as in-service) we pay very less attention to providing awareness, sensitization and training to teachers about the needs of children with special needs. Even though guiding policy documents such as the NCF*, 2005 and the NCFTE*, 2009 endorse and underscore the importance of teachers’ participation and training in achieving the inclusion goal, hardly any of this gets translated into the actual course curriculum. To give an example, under the new two-year NCTE* proposed B.Ed. programme curriculum, there is only one course that addresses inclusion or special needs.  This only endorses what I had stated earlier that because we see IE as something that is different from and in addition to regular education, we treat it is as separate, and outside the domain of regular teacher training. While, the theme of inclusion must be integrated with every domain or pedagogic knowledge that is considered important for teachers to acquire. Hence, when children with special needs enter their classrooms teachers find themselves unprepared and full of apprehension and skepticism.

I believe that the school, with a strong, committed leader at its helm can play a pivotal role in creating an enabling environment that helps teachers overcome some of their fears and concerns. But are having the right attitude and a sensitive mindset enough to achieve all of this? Perhaps not. Teachers need competencies. Competency to adapt curriculum, adopt differentiated instructional techniques, classroom management skills and collaborative methods of working with large groups of children. No doubt the list looks ambitious, but if one looks closely, all of these competencies are in fact basic skills that every good teacher must possess in order to enhance the teaching-learning experience of all the children in her classroom. Hence a good teacher strives to meet the learning needs of all the children in her classroom, irrespective of whether they have disabilities or not. Let me take the example of differentiated instruction to illustrate my point. The term differentiated instruction, is used to describe adaptation of flexible and varied teaching methodologies to work with children with diverse learning needs. Some common suggested classroom methods of differentiated instruction include presenting material using visual, auditory and kinesthetic modes, using experiential and activity based learning techniques, varying the pace at which children in the classroom are allowed to work, scaffolding children’s learning at varied levels, preparing tiered assignments, allowing students to present their material (learning) in different formats-written, oral or any other, developing different rubrics to evaluate student performance, using cooperative and peer learning extensively in the classroom, and allowing flexible and multiple seating arrangements in the classroom.

An enabling school environment with a culture of cooperation and support can provide its teachers with these competencies such that they gain the confidence to work with children with   different learning needs in a manner that is contextually relevant and pragmatic to that particular environment. In this manner, all stakeholders, including parents, peers and the support staff can be oriented and sensitized, creating an inclusive environment. My simple submission therefore is that schools take the matter into their own hands and work towards creating their own little ‘oases’ of inclusive spaces until such time we are able to surmount the challenges of rigid belief systems that are embedded deeply into our psyche and overcome systemic contradictions over which we have so little control.

NCF: National Curriculum Framework; NCTE: National Council for Teacher Education;
NCFTE: National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education.

References:

Singal, N. (2014). Role of inclusive education in enhancing children’s personal, social and educational well-being. Research Report for CBM.

Singal, N. (2014). Entry, engagement and empowerment: Dilemmas for inclusive education in the Indian context. L. Florian (Ed.). The Sage Handbook of Special Education, Vol. 1, (p. 204-216).

This article is published in The New Leam, May Issue( Vol.2  No.12) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at  thenewleam@gmail.com
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