New Educational Policy fails children with special needs, misses chance to make mental health screening mandatory

Editor's note: The draft New Education Policy, which intends to introduce broad reforms, is now open for public scrutiny. In this three-part series, Firstpost examines the structural efficacy of the proposed policy. This is the third part of the series.

The New Education Policy makes for an opportune moment to seriously reflect on why our nation has been failing our children and how the school system can make society more just and equitable.

The last of the three-part analysis of the NEP will be from the perspective of those that are most disadvantaged, the children with special needs. The analysis is rooted in the assumption that the government’s commitment to its citizens must be proportionate to their distress and their vulnerability. This assumption can be held reasonable.

 New Educational Policy fails children with special needs, misses chance to make mental health screening mandatory

Representational image. Reuters

To begin with, I go back to a conversation I had with a Class 4 student in a school I visited three years ago. Sunil was quietly sitting in an otherwise playful maths class. The period soon followed recess but hardly any child sat with him for lunch. So I went up to him to ask about him and his friends. He said he had none, his eyes looking at the floor and the voice starting to quiver. He was different, he said.

During the conversation, I noticed his shakiness and difficulty in speaking. I also observed a very abnormal walk when he left to drink water. The recess soon got over and frankly, I did not understand much. I spoke to the teacher who said he is “slow” and does not work “hard enough” for good marks. Only a professional diagnosis can reveal with any degree of certainty, though I realised years later that these are the signs of cerebral palsy. I realised we all suffered from a disability. He from cerebral palsy and I and the teacher from our blindness to it.

Sunil is not alone. According to the Census 2011 data, there are 2.7 crore Indians who suffer from different disabilities. This constitutes about 2.2 percent of the total population. The U-DISE data collected for 2016-17 of all schools in India claims 24 lakh children who suffer from disabilities. This constitutes less than 1 percent of the total students in our school system.

In the recent evaluations undertaken by the Delhi government’s Child Rights Commission, 60 percent schools reported zero students with disabilities, and another 28 percent reported less than 1 percent. Even conservative estimates by the experts would peg the number around 10 percent of the population. A World Bank study puts the number at 15 percent globally.

It highlights that people with disability are set to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes than persons without disabilities. No wonder Sunil complains of having no friends. His falling grades would only add to a potentially darker future. With less than 1 percent of children documented, this raises a fundamental question: Where are our children who suffer from disabilities?

In my limited experience of working inside and outside the government, I have come to experience and observe our blindness to even the existence of such children. It is not that these children do not exist in our school system and our own families but that we are blind to them. It is here that I believe NEP missed the opportunity of recommending mandatory screening of all children at different cycles of their lifetimes.

The first mandatory screening must be done at the time of birth. This is definitely possible today as nearly all deliveries of the babies are institutional thanks to the government’s initiatives over the last couple of decades. This must be succeeded by another round of screening before the child turns six. The huge machinery of Anganwadi workers and the ASHA workers can be leveraged to make it possible.

It must be made mandatory on the part of schools to ensure mandatory screening of their children in Class 5 and Class 10 followed by the responsibility of ensuring the children are readily issued disability certificate and handouts listing their entitlements so that the family is not abandoned to navigate complex governance processes which can often be tiresome.

Timely screening is particularly important for schools to provide special support to these children, for teachers to be additionally empathetic and take measures that allow the children to develop fully and in a judgment-free environment. Robust student tracking system recommended by the committee may help track the growth of such children to enable timely support for them. These children, too, are set up to grow up to be adults and they must be enabled to lead a life of their choice.

There is a fear that the screening may also be misused, to deny the children access to schools or for labelling, for example. This, however, does not mean that the first step should not be taken towards supporting the children. On the contrary, it calls for stricter enforcement of relevant laws and regulations alongside a massive public campaign that sensitises us all so that Sunil is respected for who he is, and is not called “slow” and not working “hard enough”. Sunil deserves friends and more importantly, the rest of us deserve adorable friends like Sunil in our life.

India's hospitals, doctors and the machinery are not equipped to handle such large volume and therefore this can start with simple steps. After all, a moment like a NEP is the time to be aspirational. The teachers, especially the Special Educators, are the essential part of the process for they hold the most significant stakes in enabling the children like Sunil to feel normal, and for the entire class to be friends with him.

Teacher educational courses must be tweaked to enable all teachers to develop the right attitude and the knowledge to screen children with disabilities and provide the required support. Several studies point to higher incidents of depression and suicide attempts among the disabled. It is with a sense of purpose, and not to serve our false pride, the children with disabilities were renamed Children With Special Needs (CWSN). It is time we acknowledge their needs and activities.

Part 1: New Education Policy: Non-inclusion of teachers in core committee deprived panel knowledge of on-ground challenges

Part 2: By opposing 'diversity of children' in private schools, New Education Policy defeats purpose of RTE

The author works as a Secretary-rank officer in Delhi Commission For Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), Government of Delhi.

Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 16:25:21 IST