Education is so critical a part of a child’s development that it is now recognized as a fundamental right. Enshrined in India’s constitution, an education is guaranteed to every child in the country.
Whether it actually happens or not is, of course, one of the most vexed questions of our times, but the understanding which led to the provision being made in the first place is evidence of the importance of education in a child’s life.
A child who cannot see, who cannot hear, whose physical handicap makes it impossible for him to move on his own, or whose mind works more slowly than average is no different from any other child in this respect. He needs an education too.
Having a handicap in no way implies that a child cannot learn or even excel. Beethoven, one of the world’s greatest composers of classical music, was deaf. Ved Mehta, one of India’s finest writers, is blind. Christy Brown, whose body was almost completely crippled with Cerebral Palsy, was a renowned painter and writer who held the brush and the pen between the toes of his left foot. And Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf and could not speak, dazzled the entire world with her tireless work for people with disabilities.
A Special Educator is, first and foremost, a teacher. Like every other teacher, she is trained to teach her students what they need to know. The difference is that every child she works with may need to know something different. While we are concerned here specifically with children whose special needs lie in the more traditional understanding of that term – i.e. physical and mental disabilities – a truer picture would include children who fall through the cracks in the mainstream school system: street children, children of migrant labourers and prisoners, children with terminal diseases. All of them have special needs which require a special education.
A Special Educator assesses the strengths, weaknesses and unique learning needs of each child in her class and designs an individual educational programme that best addresses those needs. Because many children with disabilities require assistance in becoming independent, good special education often involves teaching self-help skills like feeding, dressing, handling money and using the phone.
Other children with normal intelligence but with a physical problem or a learning disability simply need a slightly different approach from that of the mainstream classroom. Given a slower pace, or assistance with note-taking, or permission to type rather than write, or one-to-one attention from a teacher, they are able to follow the normal school curriculum and take their Board exams just like anyone else. Still others may benefit from the Open School system, which allows students to take their Board exams over a five year period, rather than all in one go.
Many children with disabilities miss out on the everyday activities of childhood: because they are “different” they often do not get to play like normal kids, nor are they included in games or in neighbourhood explorations.
Missing out on play means missing out on learning. A good special educator makes sure that her kids get plenty of play, both structured and unstructured. She uses music, art, drama and craft activities to make learning more concrete and to help her children develop the social skills they need to cope in the wider world.
Special Education, while flexible and creative, is not free-flowing and unstructured. On the contrary, each child’s progress is carefully planned and monitored and the activities of one developmental stage must be thoroughly mastered before moving on to the next. A successful Special Educator must therefore be organised and disciplined in her approach and understand the importance of regular assessment and good record keeping.
Special Education is first and foremost, a teaching job. Because its very foundation rests on an individual approach to each student, however, it is usually more flexible than a teaching job in the normal school system. Many teachers in the normal schools dream of being able to design their curriculum without the constant hassle of having to finish the Board syllabus. In Special Education, it often happens.
Because different disabilities require different teaching approaches, training for Special Educators varies accordingly.
Throughout the country, there are diploma and degree courses in Special Education for the:
- Blind/Visually Handicapped
- Deaf/Hearing Handicapped
- Learning Disabled/Mentally Handicapped
- Physically/Orthopedically Handicapped
Training varies considerably from one institution to another. Government institutions are on the dreary side, with an attitude toward disability which is predictably bureaucratic and reflective of government policy. Having said this, every government institute has its share of absolute gems, people who are committed, intelligent and passionate about their work and who make the best of a difficult environment.
Training in university courses tends to be academically rigorous and demanding. Because universities are centres for research, as well as being connected to other large academic organizations, students in these courses can expect to learn the latest, most up-to-the-minute theories and practices. Practical experience is generally less easily available than in government centres. Most university programs do run small model schools as part of their programme, but it is difficult for them to provide as much experience as students require to feel really prepared.
Training in diploma courses run by the Spastics Societies and smaller institutions like Tamana in Delhi and Dilkush in Bombay are usually on the CBR (Community Based Rehabilitation) model. Very strong emphasis is placed on developing the right attitude in students and selection for these courses is more dependent on personality and commitment than on academic qualifications. Students are trained less as “experts” with all the answers and more as agents for social change in the community. In this approach, people with handicaps are seen not as persons in need of services but as citizens responsible for their own lives and capable of deciding their own fate.