Letter to Editor
Anupam Ahuja, “Don’t Disable her Right to go to School”
The Hindu, 14 August 2012
I welcome Anupam Ahuja’s vision of “acknowledging, respecting and celebrating diversity as enriching humanity and a normal aspect of society.” This will facilitate efforts to include people who are differently-abled, and in fact we should be doing this already, for everyone. Why do we discount the diversity within all of us, label some of as “standard,” and call those who do not fit into that standard as disabled and thereby uniquely able to bring about the promised enrichment of humanity? If we truly respected the diversity within each one of us, our society would be a more hospitable place for those with conditions that are normally labelled disabilities including impairment of hearing, vision, motor-functions and more severe conditions.
Instead our schools are designed to stamp out diversity and promote conformity,. To this end, a student whose learning path diverges from the standardized curriculum, who dares answer a question differently, ask a different question, or question the answer or the teacher, is punished in some way or another. At the most basic level – the student is not heard. A different answer is not explored but simply marked wrong. Soon children learn not to give different (wrong) answers, and soon after that learn not to think them either.
But what about those who don’t learn to reign in their curiosity? Children tell me stories of what happens when they ask a question or say something other than the scripted answer.
“So you think you are smart?”
“Why do you come to school?”
These are not questions designed to be answered. They aim to humiliate and forbid reply. From what the children and parents tell me, they largely succeed.
In short, since the system is hearing-impaired, the students must be silent. Is it not the school that must be certified as disabled and given appropriate services to equip it to hear and see all of its students and respect their right to education?
Rather than demanding that such schools accommodate someone whose abilities differ from the norm, we should question the push to standardization and conformity in society as a whole, that has led to the social marginalization not only of those who are recognized as disabled, but of the communities that the author is concerned about, such as migrant workers and ragpickers. Why have their rights to land, housing, work, wages, rations and other entitlements that would improve their quality of life and liberty, been denied? I am not suggesting that right to education of the children with disabilities must wait for these other rights to be fulfilled. But I worry that to leave those questions behind and only seek enrollment in the same system of standardized education will not bring us any closer to the vision of society that the author has espoused. Mr. Ahuja is not advocating that we do this, but globally we are seeing a trend of emphasis on education, blinded to social factors and civil rights, as if education alone can help the individual overcome poverty and social injustice. This vision of education isolated from its social context, feeds into the cycle of standardized testing and competition over creativity and cooperation.
The author’s ideas about education, home-education, school-education, and community growth seem to be unexamined and perhaps not well-informed.
“Most often when we talk about educating a child, we think about school and believe that true learning can only take place within the four walls of a formal classroom.”
Who believes this? Does this ring true with our own experience? Is it supported by research? How many schools today are ready to embrace true learning – to allow students to depart from the script of the textbook and standardized test preparation? Such learning is more likely to take place outside the walls of the classroom, or at most, within the spaces between classes.
The author asks,
“Is education only for personal gain or does it also offer benefits for the general growth of an entire community providing a place for children, youth and adults to interact, socialise, and unify societies? If we agree with the latter, then clearly home-schooling cannot really provide for this goal.”
What home-schooling has the author observed? In contrast to schoolchildren, home-schooled children are not placed within four walls with children of the same age for hours every day. Instead they interact with people of various ages and generations in their home and community, discovering ideas and projects that mean something to them, and working with those around them, much as school-going children might do during vacations and weekends. Granted more support may be required for children with severe disabilities but homeschooling in general allows more time for children to take part in the community, not less, than standard schooling.
The author asks, “Who would identify and certify the children as severely disabled for providing the home-based education programme?”
Currently home-education is a route that anyone in India may pursue, and one not need demonstrate any specific ability or disability to avail this path of learning. Secondly, I would urge you to question the value of labeling children as disabled – I understand that it is used to help children access appropriate services, but there is a risk associated with labeling as well, a risk that one sees the disability and is blinded to the abilities of each individual, and also that any departure from the increasingly rigidly defined “normal” is labelled a disability. We are seeing this with the rise in learning disabilities that are being diagnosed in Western countries and also in India. Many people have observed that children allowed to learn at their own pace and following their own, at times roundabout paths will learn more meaningfully. Some schools allow for such learning, but increasingly the pressure of standardized curriculum and testing makes this all but impossible. Compound that with earlier start of formal education (who waits till age 6 now? the admissions race begins far earlier.) and the child who is engrossed in thinking or exploring interests other than reading, writing and arithmetic is not allowed to do so, but labelled slow or disabled, or having attention deficit, or defiance disorder. Instead can we not recognize that child as learning?
The author says:
“Many argue that the current regular schools do not offer any relevant service for children with high support needs.”
In fact, I would argue that for the most part that the current regular schools do not offer relevant service for children who are passionate about learning, who are eager not merely to answer the question but also to question the answer, and even question the question. I have observed in case after case that young children do all of these things quite persistently but the behavior is systematically ironed out of them till they can sit as passive receivers of the standard curriculum and efficient writers of standardized tests. That is a tragic denial of Right to Education, as I have written here: Right to Education.
When school systems embrace every child’s right to learn, then they will not depend on confining children for many hours each day within fixed spaces and fixed ideas. My sister went to school with a disabled child. In her classroom, children had “jobs” every day, such as changing the calendar page, arranging supplies, erasing the chalkboards, cleaning the table after lunch, etc. One of the jobs was helper for the disabled child, Kumar (name changed). The jobs rotated so that every week or month every child got to do every job at least once. My sister tells me that everyone looked forward to being Kumar’s helper. There was no condescension, and Kumar also got to do certain jobs and be helpful. Schools that equip children to accommodate difference, whether in ideas, habits, or physical ability, will ultimately serve all students.
We are a long way from that today however. To achieve that vision in our schools would require changes in our society. It would require that we sincerely live up to our constitution and believe in every person, respect rights of everyone without exception. We should foster connections between formal and informal paths of learning, not posit one as a threat to the other. Those working in home-education and those working in school-education, and who believe in a society that works “for all the children including Mira,” serve in complementary roles to articulate and achieve this vision.