CHENNAI: A row of colourful, labelled wheelchairs greets you at the entrance of Vidya Sagar in Kotturpuram. If you can’t recognise my ability, then that is your disability reads a poster on the wall of the school, right next to a ramp that takes you to the top floor. From the receptionist and the secretary to the deputy director herself, everyone here has fought battles with disability.
Dipti Bhatia, the deputy director, works on a laptop specially programmed for the visually impaired. She is an activist for inclusive education, and dealing with disability is for her a question of human rights.
“The biggest barrier to inclusive education is not the lack of lifts and ramps, it is the attitude,” she says. Physical barriers are hurdles, but to insist on a building with universal access depends on people’s attitude. “The disability cannot be changed, but the environment definitely can,” says Dipti.
She recounts how her colleague took a Class 1 child with cerebral palsy for admission and was told that since the classroom was on the first floor, they could admit the child in LKG instead. “We later asked them to shuffle the classrooms and they agreed,” she says, showing that solutions are often quite simple, once the mental barrier is broken down.
“Government schools have been more welcoming to children with special needs, giving admission directly,” she says, while private schools are more reluctant and come up with excuses like a lack of equipped staff and infrastructure. Dipti even came across a teacher who said, “Why should I do this? I am not a special needs educator.”
“If the school is not convinced about the child, I cannot bully them and I wouldn’t want to send my children to a school that does not accept them.”
Corporation schools provide admission but often don’t have the funds and resources to deal with the children’s needs; the schools that do have the resources don’t welcome inclusivity.
“We do have some private schools like Lady Andal and Vidyodaya taking in children. With the Sarva Shiksha Abhyan programme, there are weekly visits to examine the progress in government schools,” she adds.
Dipti herself studied at Vidyodaya after the Little Flower Convent for the Blind and Deaf. “At Vidyodaya I told them I could manage with Braille and they agreed to give me a month to see if I cope. Well, I managed,” she says, the smile never leaving her face.
Examinations are a major hurdle. “Blind people are fairly accepted, we get scribes for exams. But I had difficulty convincing the government to provide scribes for students with cerebral palsy. They agreed ultimately, but after a lot of excuses,” she says, giving an example where they asked for an assistant at a practical examination and were told that other students would hear what the student tells the assistant.
Alternate methods can be worked out for most disabilities - Braille, communication charts, and computers. “One girl who had no movement of her limbs passed her BCom exam by indicating each letter with her eyes to her scribe,” she says.
Co-curricular needs, which are important for inclusion, are often overlooked. The solutions, again, are not necessarily elaborate. “Having seats on swings instead of just a plank, wheelchair relays at sports days, having other students help them out at lunch time. These are simple things that could make them feel included,” she observes, adding that other students need to see them as regular friends and not just someone they need to help.