S Maxwell Lyngdoh
When we look at mental health in foundational years, it begins in the early pre-primary years. A strong foundation leads to a well-rounded individual in the later years. Children in such a stage are just as capable of experiencing peaks of joy as well as depths of grief. As in all normal circumstances, parents send their children to preschool and so on without anticipating anything much. With the passage of time, some changes are observed in children which may not seem like that of usual behaviours. Detecting such situations will require an individual with such calibre and expertise as that of a special educator. However, on the other hand, such experts are not appointed nor are children being identified if they are going through disorders during childhood.
At a larger picture, the simple example is children with special needs should be enrolled in special schools and the buck stops here. But are special educators only for children with special needs? It may be mentioned that there are many types of special needs that are obvious and visible when you see the child. However, there are many times we need to look for signs that may be indicative of a problem or those that need our intervention. Having disabilities like visual impairment, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment may be easier to detect. Learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder and sometimes even autism may be harder to detect at first (The Indian Express, 2020). The disabilities that are hard to identify are typically learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. It is for this reason that they are known as hidden disabilities. Before one takes the step to assess formally the presence of a disability or special needs, it is important to observe the child in all situations to see the pervasiveness of the issue at hand.
Normally, in such circumstances, neither parents notice such obvious behaviours nor teachers at the schools. It won’t be wrong in saying that parents who are educated and aware of such situations are more observant and cautious. Sadly, in most cases, children which such disorders suffers even more when parents and teachers are ignorant and in turn tag them as being incompetent, dumb and dull. The key to a better prognosis is always early intervention, as with any challenge and problem we may be faced with. The faster we identify, accept and seek help, the better our final outcome will be. This only means to suggest the availability of full-time special educators in schools which is out of the context for most schools in the country. They perceive such appointments as a complete waste of resources or not a requirement for the educational institution, hence resulting in such cases being left underdiagnosed and undertreated.
This is perhaps why the flag of inclusive education is being noticed and acknowledged gradually. Fortunately, the categories included in inclusive are cognitive abilities, physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, specific learning disabilities and neurodevelopmental problems. With regard to cognitive disability, it includes intellectual disability and adaptive scale. Physical disability includes locomotor and ortho, while sensory disability includes low vision, blind, hearing impaired and fully hearing impairment. Specific learning disability includes dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. On the other hand, neurodevelopmental includes ID, Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD).
Assessment of these children should be done only by RCI registered clinical psychologists but early detections will be done by special educators of the educational institution. The recommendations are then followed officially. The assessments are required to be redone every 2 years and 6 months before board registration. Almost 1.2 lakh special educators are registered with the RCI with approximately 8,000 added every year. Yet there is a shortage of Special Educators in sectors required for them to be fully involved.
In January 2021, a news item reported in the Times of India entitled “No special educators appointed in model schools” shows that in Rajasthan alone, there are over 60,000 government schools, and there are only 1,326 special education teachers. A similar report was seen by this same print in 2019 which states “Expressing concern over the “dearth” of special educators in government schools, Delhi High Court has said despite repeated efforts, the vacancies have not been filled”. Likewise, there are an ample number of similar cases all over the country.
However, the Indian government is trying to implement special education services in all government schools. As per the evaluation techniques for children with special needs (CWSN) chalked out by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the special educators are supposed to make special kids not only physically comfortable in class but also change their teaching methods for their sake. It has been seen that there are a number of tailor-made teaching aids in class meant just for special kids but the teacher does not know how to use them.
With inclusive education being given importance in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the SSA’s emphasis has been to safeguard those children with special needs should be placed in neighbourhood schools, but the administrators along with the teachers working at the grassroots level express that the insufficient number of trained special education teachers is a major challenge. After the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued directions about the proper professional special education training, the SSA can hire inclusive education resource teachers (IERTs). But due to the rising number of early interventions of the special needs among children nowadays, other teachers have to undergo a training in special education which is only an introductory session on the needs of children with special needs. This issue is highlighting the insufficient number of trained special education teachers across the country.
The Meghalaya State Education Policy did mention Children with Special Needs (CWSN) but nothing concrete was mentioned for any follow-up. Point No. 3.2.2 mentions and I quote “The State Government shall promote equal opportunity for all sections of the society irrespective gender, religion and socio-economic background. In so far as children with special needs are concerned, the National Policy of inclusive education shall be followed”. There are many factors responsible for such a laid-back approach to the entire situation. Society at large has a big role to play and the schools are avoiding taking it up for issues like infrastructure, manpower and other reliabilities involved. Sensitization of children with special needs is a requirement now, across different sectors in order to help change the mindset and promote acceptance.
Reports suggest that there are a number of posts vacant for special educators in states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Meghalaya, etc. Special education teachers, especially in public schools, are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license along with a professional teaching certificate. Teachers in private schools stereotypically need a bachelor’s degree but may not be essential to have a state license or certification. Overall, the employment of special education teachers is projected to grow in India but the recent pandemic has changed a lot of the educational sectors of the country. Well, it is correct that online teaching is slightly tough for special needs students, but this is how the teachers can keep in touch with their learners. There does not seem to be any other option either (Ghose, 2021).
What is required at the moment is the sensitization training in primary schools, which is a crucial part of creating a safe environment for all children. Children with disabilities often face bullying and lack of acceptance from fellow pupils as well as from school teachers and administration. The community at large is often unaware of the potential of children with special needs. All children with special needs must be enrolled in primary schools. After the assessment of their disabilities by a team of a doctor, a psychologist, and a special educator, in schools, the child will be placed in appropriate educational settings. Children with mild and moderate disabilities of any kind may be integrated into normal schools, severe in special schools/remedial schools, and dropouts who have problems in availing benefits of normal schools can join open schools. All the children with learning disabilities are first managed in normal schools. Open and special schools also offer vocational courses for children with disabilities (India Development Gateway, 2021).
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
S Maxwell Lyngdoh