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How much do we care for special education needs? | #specialneeds | #kids

National Education Policy 2020 is considered a path-breaking roadmap to overhaul the education sector in the country. For the first time in independent India, the education of children with disabilities is an integral part of a national policy. Though there were earlier attempts at a national education policy in the 80s, none focussed as strongly on inclusive education as the current one. Inclusion of early childhood pre-school education in the new policy can help scale up access to education to children with disabilities, as many of them may need prolonged hand-holding to sustain inclusion.

NEP 2020 is indeed very positive, on paper. Impediments to positive implementation, however, remain as ground realities are far from ideal.

According to the 2011 Census, Karnataka has 24 lakh people living with disabilities. A vast majority of them, 74%, live in rural areas. There are schemes, no doubt, such as disability social security pension, grants in aid for special schools, vocational training and for inclusive education but rehabilitation services have failed to reach those in need, especially in rural areas. Available data, such as the number of children studying in special and inclusive schools, and the number of persons with disabilities employed in government and private sector, still show that large swathes of the population lack support to pursue meaningful education and a life of dignity.

In the Indian context, human resource is a big question with no answer in sight. As recently as April 2019, schools in India were grappling with a shortage of 9,00,000 teachers. In 2018, in Karnataka, 2.39 lakh took the Teacher Eligibility Test conducted by the Department of Public Instruction to fill 10,000 posts lying vacant in government schools across the state. A mere 3.98%of the candidates cleared the test for primary school teachers and 16.89% cleared it for middle school teachers. Important to note is the fact that these  candidates appearing for TET are all BEd graduates and we are only talking about trained teachers, not special educators.

Special educators are a rare species and rigid rules of the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) are not helping grow this species either. RCI is a regulatory body established in 1992 and unlike its international peers, it has taken on the role of regulation and policing rather than that of a facilitator.

The ideal student-teacher ratio as envisaged by the government is 10:1 at primary level and 5:1 at secondary and upwards for SEN. India needs a minimum 15 lakh special educators immediately to address their needs in the true sense, and Karnataka a tenth of it at 15,000. 

The current number of special educators registered with the RCI is a lakh and thereabouts in the entire country, roughly 10% of the current minimum requirement. Both government and private schools are advised, and rightly so, to appoint RCI registered special teachers. Karnataka alone has over 62,229 schools, public and private, put together. How do all these schools employ at least one special educator, if not more, to support children with special needs?

The reason for this abysmal condition, among others, is the lack of adequately trained professionals with the right kind of orientation to pursue a career in rehabilitation and inclusion. In addition, the RCI curriculum trains single disability specialists and therefore is not sustainable. Typically, we see groups of 6-8 children, with different disabilities in a village panchayat. Is it possible to employ six different teachers? Though desirable, we simply cannot afford that.

The solution is to develop multi-category special teachers who are trained to meet the diverse educational needs of children with disabilities in inclusive education.

Universities are also found lacking in ramping up skilled resources: Out of 54 universities in Karnataka (central, state and deemed universities) only two to three offered rehabilitation related courses and there are no departments established for disability studies even though UGC extends support to set up centres for disability studies and equal opportunities to encourage people with disabilities to pursue higher education.

There are hundreds of passionate special educators who are not eligible under RCI guidelines and who cannot be employed by mainstream schools. In fact, special educators who do not have an RCI registration but still practise are liable for punishment: Rs 1,000 fine and up to three months of jail or both. Practising special educators have no viable avenues to get registered. The courses offered by RCI recognised colleges/universities are few and far in between. In Karnataka, for example, there is no course recognised by RCI for early intervention, which is crucial for children diagnosed with developmental disabilities like autism. What is to be done?

A policy for training teachers with required skills is an absolute necessity while recognising the efforts of current practitioners and giving them avenues to register in the RCI registry needs urgent consideration. Alternatively, experts recommended setting up of a state-level body, Karnataka State Council of Rehabilitation and Inclusion (Karnataka Rajyada Punarvasathi and Samanvya Mandali.) This makes sense as education is a concurrent subject and disability a state and panchayat raj subject in the Constitution.

Many NGOs offer training programmes, with a focus exclusively on special education and not addressing the entire gamut of rehabilitation training. The NGO programmes are connected with universities in Karnataka and are directly linked to RCI. Notably, these NGOs are all concentrated in Bengaluru. This unplanned approach to human resource development in the disability sector has resulted in lack of trained resources for comprehensive rehabilitation training and research relevant to Karnataka.

The Rights of Person with Disabilities (RPwD) Act passed in 2016, redefines disability: it includes 21+ types of disabilities in place of eight in the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. There is also a shift in the vision and approach to disability as India signed UN CRPD in 2006 – from disability-centred thinking to human rights-based approach with a focus on inclusion.

Karnataka needs HR development in disability disciplines based on the magnitude of disability in the state, disability-wise prevalence, geographical distribution, and age distribution. The state government, however, lacks a clear recruitment policy of special teachers and resource teachers. This policy paralysis is one of the main reasons for the grave situation of lack of access to education for a majority of children, especially in rural areas. The situation is by and large the same in most states as education and rehabilitation are issues on the back burner for state governments. There are no state policies, legislation and road maps to reach the unreached in most states.

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