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Presented at ISEC 2000

Facilitating Inclusive Education: The Changing Role of Special Educational Centres

Reena Sen, Ph.D. Deputy Director, Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Calcutta


This paper is set against the background of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act that was passed by the Indian Parliament in 1995. The Act "endeavours to promote the integration of children with disabilities in normal schools". The paper addresses the present status of initiatives to integrate children with disabilities in Calcutta and the changing roles of the special school and teacher training initiatives. The paper makes specific references to the work of Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy.

It highlights three issues felt to be critical to the quality of teaching and learning experiences in schools, particularly in developing countries:

(a) The continuing need to develop special schools as specialist centres for children whose disabilities are multiple and severe and who require additional therapy and counselling support, and as demonstration centres for professionals and others.
(b) The need to modify training provision for initial and in-service training for teachers to include specific inputs on early intervention for learning difficulties and strategies to deal with pupil diversity, particularly in the context of the large class sizes.
(c) The development of educational material that will benefit all child including those who have physical and/or communication difficulties.

This paper is set against the background of legislation that, if implemented, will lead to a comprehensive change in the environment and life experiences of persons with disabilities and their families in India. In 1995, the Parliament of India passed the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act recommending widespread and positive changes in the overall approach to every aspect of disability. The paper focuses on the challenges related to the education of children with multiple disabilities in reference to the Act's "endeavour to promote the integration of children with disabilities in 'normal' (author's emphasis) schools".

In India, specialist centres, offering comprehensive educational and rehabilitation programmes for children with multiple disabilities were established, by non-government organisations, to meet the need of parents who had no where else to turn. Even today, these centres are often the only places where parents can get access to varied educational and intervention services for their children - that too, mainly, in urban areas. Times are changing. The need to provide equal opportunities in the mainstream within communities for people with disabilities is now seen as a priority. In concurrence with the Act the Government of India has launched the Integrated Education for Disabled Children, a scheme with specifically allocated funds, for facilitating integration throughout the country. Schools and higher educational centres can no longer afford to exclude students with disabilities as a matter of policy.

However, alongside these positive efforts has been the tendency to deride special educational centres as being 'segregated', 'isolated', 'expensive', 'restricting' 'undemanding'. Special schools appear to be 'politically incorrect'. However, the critical questions to be asked are - Is the mainstream school always the most suitable placement for every student with a disability? Who decides? Does a specialist centre play any role in making schools and society at large, more inclusive for all children including those who have disabilities? If yes, what role does it play?

I would like to emphasise that there is no right or wrong, correct or incorrect answer. The answer is entirely relative to the larger educational, social and economic context. Therefore, in order to understand the challenges involved in creating a more inclusive educational climate, a few relevant facts about India and particularly its education system are being presented.

India's population numbers a billion. Across the length and breadth of the country, people look different, speak different, dress different and even eat different! The population is located, mainly, in rural areas with very sparse facilities. Urban areas are overcrowded with vast and growing disparity between the middle classes and the poor. Therefore, any discussion about India needs to be placed within the overall perspectives of massive numbers, social, cultural and economic diversity, limited resources, competing priorities and unequal demand and supply.

Education in India

  1. In spite of the annual rate of population growth at 1.8%, there have significant growth in the literacy rate by 12% in the last ten years. Literacy amongst females has increased from 43% in 1991 to 50% in 1997. 80% of children aged seven years and over are in school in urban areas. 56% of rural children in the same category are in school. (National Literacy Mission, 1998)
  2. School education is structured around a 10+2 system starting from Class 1. Boards of Education conduct Secondary school leaving examinations at the end of the tenth year and the Higher Secondary examinations at the end of the twelfth year. The student has to appear in all subjects during these examinations.
  3. Written tests and examinations either marked or graded are based on a fixed syllabus for each school year and used for assessment right from Class 1 except for a few exceptional schools. Academic pressure is a feature of childhood in India.
  4. The average class size ranges from 50-70 per classroom with one teacher.
  5. A compulsory course of subjects including maths, science and two languages has to be studied till Class 10 after which there is a choice between the Arts, Science and Commerce streams. Marks required for entrance into University are very high. The National Open School, a parallel education system for disadvantaged groups allows more flexibility but is not recognised by all Universities.

Within this overall structure there are wide variations:

Against the backdrop of these facts let us now examine three issues which I see as critical in the discussion about changing roles of special education centres.

I have selected these issues on the basis of practical experience and lessons learnt over 25 years of work in the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP). This is a national training centre offering comprehensive educational, community and family services for persons with multiple disability, particularly cerebral palsy.

Enhancing the capacity of special schools as resource centre to act as pressure groups for planned integration for students with severe and multiple disabilities.

Sayom Deb Mukherjee, twenty years old, has degenerative neuro-muscular disorder. He is wheelchair bound and completely dependent on his caregivers for all self-care needs. He communicates by using a tongue switch and special software to access a computer. He describes himself as an advocate for 'mentally alert quadriplegics'. He is today winging his way across the oceans to represent his training centre in an international conference on augmentative communication in Washington.

In India, today, there is no place for students like Sayom in mainstream schools. The obstacles are not just attitudinal, though I must hasten to add that attitudes are changing, becoming more positive. The large class size, the undifferentiated syllabus, lack of support staff and constraints of funds are real obstacles to contend with. Examination Boards allow extra time, exemption from some practical work and the use of writers for students with physical disabilities but getting these concessions is not an easy process. Further, social inclusion and acceptance by peer group is not something that one can take for granted. I quote from Sayom's paper presented at a National Conference earlier this year. "I had thought it would be fun to go a mainstream school but I was wrong. First of all, the students and teachers all treated me as special. It was very disturbing. I could not make any friends because no one wanted me as a friend. I tried my best to accommodate and adjust but I was unsuccessful. " (Mukherjee, 2000)

I am not putting up a case against integration, far from it. My observation is that in most urban and rural areas in India at present, integration is successful when the student is mobile, can communicate with functional speech and most importantly, able to cope with the academic syllabus. Integration is expensive, it entails allocation of human and material resources. Successful integration requires legislation that not only reflects good intentions but also enforces. Until it is mandatory for Indian schools to include a certain number of students with severe disabilities and make the necessary adaptations, integration will be feasible only for a small section of students with mild degrees of disability. It is therefore, important to extend our role as pressure groups in the process of planning, and implementation of measures that will remove attitudinal, physical and curricular barriers for students with severe and multiple disabilities. We need to empower parents so that they work with us for educational change.

There are other more fundamental factors. Notions of integration, segregation, inclusion and exclusion tend to lead to polarised, extreme points of view. In a world where society is segmented by religion, race, language, nationality and colour, total integration or inclusion is a utopian ideal. A major role of specialist centres is to ensure there is a continuum of educational provision, and be ready to accept there are some students for whom the mainstream school is NOT the least restrictive environment. If ALL students have the right to quality education, then those who have disabilities that are severe and multiple have the right to make educational choices which enable access to an environment where their special educational and therapeutic needs are met adequately and where their families get support. Therefore we should not be apologetic on behalf of students in special schools. On the other hand we should continue to upgrade quality and demand adequate resources so that special schools can offer wide-ranging differentiated curricula and have the services of a multidisciplinary professional team of teachers, therapists and counsellors.

In India it is critical to be sensitive to the felt needs of communities in outreach and rural areas where educational facilities are poor and one-teacher schools are more the rule than the exception. We cannot assume that the village school will be the most suitable educational placement for a student with disabilities just because it is economically more viable. A lesson learnt from our community services is that placing a disabled student in the classroom does not ensure a positive educational experience. Therefore when a rural community on the basis of real experiences opt for alternative models such as a special school or home-tutoring its choice must be respected.

Special does not suggest segregation, and that brings me to the second issue I have addressed in this paper.

Extending linkages between special and mainstream education

We have established linkages with mainstream schools in a number of ways.

Joint participation in leisure and curricular activities such as dramatics, debates, dance and quiz programmes, clubs, holiday camps.
Providing assessment and guidance services for mainstream schools in relation to both non-disabled children who are underachieving and those who have specific motor, communication, behaviour or learning difficulties. We are providing this input both for students in rural villages and small towns and urban schools.
Collaborative action-research with mainstream schools for meeting individual needs in the classroom. This is seen as a step towards a more inclusive educational system. One such project involved the employment of a special education teacher who was responsible for assessing children 'at risk' and supporting students with special needs in small group or individual settings and in the classroom. In spite of documented qualitative and quantitative gains by students over two years, the special education teacher's contract was not renewed by the school on grounds of financial constraints and the project came to an end. The teacher continues to provide tutoring support to many of the students in the programme.
Advocacy and awareness programmes led by students with disabilities for their peer groups in mainstream schools. Programmes have included workshops on rights, walkathons, media campaigns.
Participation in awareness campaigns for mainstream teachers in rural and outreach areas.

The onus is on specialist centres to create and continue to intensify linkages with community schools. Doors have to be kept open for on-going contact and each opportunity to include students with disabilities must be used so that these children are visible in the community. If truly integrated education is our aim, it is imperative that steps are taken that will create positive changes in the teaching and learning environment in mainstream schools. The changes must be directed at all children so that the system is dynamic enough to meet a range of special needs, whether these are mild or severe, temporary or long term. The most important step in this direction is in reviewing and upgrading teacher training and the concluding part of this paper deals with this issue.

Greater overlap between 'special' and 'general' teachers' training

In India, teachers' training colleges train teachers for mainstream schools in either two-year post-school teachers training certificate courses or one-year post-graduate B.Ed degree courses. Special education diploma and degree courses are offered by training institutes such as the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy and a small number of universities. The two types of training programmes are completely independent of each other.

In the course of in-service training, teachers in mainstream schools have said with complete frankness that children who have disabilities are not their concern and cannot possibly be included in their overcrowded classrooms. Even if a student has serious academic difficulties with no other difficulties and needs extra support, teachers feel they cannot provide it on a long-term basis. If integration or inclusion is to be a reality, special and mainstream teacher training must marry. The only way to bridge the gap between 'normal and special' is to include compulsory courses on special education in the teachers' training curriculum. Special educational centres can play vitally important roles in the provision of this training because of their multidisciplinary professional staff and the availability of facilities for demonstration and practical experience in the classrooms and other work settings. Specialist centres like IICP, have also developed an impressive array of teaching and training material. Unfortunately, it has been our experience that the fact that the material is produced by an organisation dealing with disability deters mainstream schools from realising their utility. This artificial divide, the attitude that what is special does not apply to mainstream will narrow only if specialist centres disseminate relevant information to teacher training colleges so that trainee teachers and their trainers believe that ALL children fall within the purview of their teaching. In the case of practising teachers, specialist centres must provide opportunities for reflection about teaching and learning processes and outcomes by regular in-service training programmes.

Rajul Padmanabhan, a colleague from Vidya Sagar (formerly Spastics Society of India), Chennai said with reference to their experiences of integration, "Twenty five children have been successfully mainstreamed. However, though these children are in mainstream schools, the responsibility for their learning is still with us. In spite of the initial exposure we had given the staff and children from the mainstream school ….. in the event of any problem or crisis, the staff from the mainstream school contact us." (Padmabhan, 2000). I feel that this is a potential barrier to inclusion. It is our role to de-mystify work with disability, to share knowledge and skill so that the teacher in the classroom believes she has the capability to solve problems and the confidence to try out solutions and learn from experience, including mistakes. Specialist organisations should be consultants for guidance and advice, not give the answers. If we are truly committed to integration and inclusion the locus of control cannot be located outside the classroom.

Change is an inevitable part of life. Our collective wisdom, however, should guide us to change with our eyes wide open. We have to extend our roles by using existing strengths and resources and learning from both positive and negative experiences, by accepting the historical evolution of educational provision and by valuing and building on the milestones we have achieved.


Mukherjee, S.D. (2000) Proceedings of the National Millennium Conference. IICP

National Literacy Mission. (1998). Literacy Rates: An Analysis Based on NSSO Survey.

Padmanabhan, R. (2000). Proceedings of the National Millennium Conference. IICP




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