Stories are the cornerstone of all human understanding. We make sense of the world and of new information through stories – how did these same things happen to other people? How did they deal with what we are experiencing right now? What can we learn?
As schools around India struggle to adapt to the challenges the Right to Education Act has introduced, particularly regarding children with special needs, I want to share the story of a little girl named Moy Moy. (Some of you have heard this before . . . )
Moy Moy was her mother’s 13th child. Mom had been sterilised after Baby #12, but the operation hadn’t worked and Moy Moy was conceived anyway. She then decided on an abortion. She came down to Dehradun from her village in the Himalayas and approached the only doctor she trusted in the entire city. This doctor also happened to be the only one in the city who didn’t believe in abortion and wouldn’t perform them. She convinced the Mom to have the baby and promised her she would find it a home.
A few months later, coming down for a routine prenatal appointment, she went into labor on the bus. The bus pulled over and Moy Moy was born on the side of the road. She was 12 weeks premature and weighed just under a kilo. Her Mom wrapped her up in a shawl, climbed back on the bus and continued to the hospital where she left her with the doctor as planned.
Two weeks later, two young American doctors were volunteering at the same hospital. They heard the story of the baby girl who needed a home and the woman said: “My sister will adopt her.”
The sister was me. Moy Moy came into our family at the age of two weeks, our 3rd child and our second daughter. Being so premature and so small at delivery, it wasn’t surprising that she had Cerebral Palsy and an intellectual impairment.
I tell this story partly to explain my life, partly to establish my credibility. Moy Moy is now 26 years old and that makes me something of a disability expert.
But I wasn’t born that way. When Moy Moy came into our family, I was an ordinary mother with two typical children. I had zero experience, no training whatsoever and absolutely no idea about anything related to disability. All I knew was that this child was now mine and it was my responsibility to bring her up. If there was something I didn’t know, I needed to learn it. If there was a skill I didn’t have, I needed to acquire it.
And that is my point here. As principals and teachers, we shouldn’t get to choose the children who sit in our classrooms, any more than families do.
Families are, of course, the original democracy. Think about your own brothers and sisters; your cousins; your aunts and uncles. If your family is anything like mine, it’s full of people you would never choose as friends. And yet you can’t imagine your life without them. Even when they drive you crazy. Even when they make demands you don’t feel like giving in to, even when they act weird or hold insane political views. They’re yours. They’re family.
And that is, I believe, what gives human society its remarkable adaptability, resourcefulness and problem-solving abilities. As a species, we are pretty amazing. We’ve built a world which is staggeringly complex and sophisticated, conquering time and space and meeting challenges of monumental proportions. We didn’t do it by staying in a tiny compound and mixing only with people exactly like ourselves. As the world has evolved, we are seeing a sea change in the whole concept of family, kinship and relationships.
My own story is emblematic of how this is unfolding. I was born in a small city in the United States but I somehow ended up marrying a charismatic guy from Mumbai and settling in Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Our children were raised in India but hold US passports. Our son recently married a girl from China and the two of them live in London. Our daughter is in love with a boy from England and they are both at the University of Chicago doing PhDs (she’s a Catholic, studying the Hebrew Bible; he’s a Jew doing Islamic Studies).
There are many who totally reject such stories. They are the ones who believe that we should all stay in our own contracted circles, marry only our own kind and produce children who think and behave just as we do. ISIS, RSS, born-again Christians, Jewish zealots – God bless them all, but the world has moved on. Our children simply are not interested in that kind of limited life.
I believe the same thing is true for our schools. Schools should be just like our world. We should be able to stand at the open door of any school and say with pleasure and anticipation as the children rush in: Here comes everybody!
Rich, poor, boys, girls, smart, slow, fit and disabled: everyone is welcome here.
The idea that schools are for everyone, that every single child has the right to an education, is one of the most revolutionary concepts in the world. It is the foundation of democracy, the great equaliser – it is what makes it possible for a boy born in poverty to end up as a Prime Minister or a President or for a girl born in a tiny African village where no one knows how to read to end up winning a Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it’s more than that. Because education is richer, more vibrant and more sustainable when everyone takes part. Schools are more creative, more interesting and more effective when they welcome and encourage all kinds of learning. That’s how we change the story.
Including children from diverse backgrounds meaningfully (no naam ke vaste stuff here) in our classrooms guarantees a better education. Everyone benefits.
India’s Right to Education Act specifically addresses the issue of children with disability in school. It says clearly and unambiguously that no child can be denied an education because of a disability.
Yet we all know that a law on paper and a law which the public accepts and believes in are two entirely different things.
Let me tell you another story. This one is about a little girl named Shefali. Her father is a scientist in a prestigious government research institute in Dehradun. Her mother has a Master’s degree and teaches in a renowned prep school. Shefali was born premature and has Cerebral Palsy. She needs some help to get around and her speech can be hard to understand until you get used to it. She’s a little slow to grasp new concepts, but she is eager to learn and she’s curious about the world. She’s a friendly, engaging girl and she’s very easy to like.
Because her parents are so aware, they enrolled Shefali in our Early Intervention Centre when she was still an infant – and she did beautifully. When she turned five, we encouraged them to admit her in a good mainstream school. Because of the RTE, her parents were able to get her in the Kendriya Vidyalaya in their neighbourhood and we went for the initial interview to help the school help Shefali make the transition.
Right away, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
The principal was deeply opposed to any “child like Shefali” attending her school. What that even means I have no idea What is a “child like Shefali”? Whatever this principal thought she knew about her, without ever having even met her, she was adamant that it wouldn’t work for her to be in class with so-called normal kids.
And she set out to prove it.
A principal who is reluctant to accept inclusion can sabotage the best laws any activists can frame, any legislature can enact, any Supreme Court can uphold. This principal told us that her hands were tied. She could not legally refuse to admit Shefali, but she could – and she did – make sure that the child was so miserable that in a short time she would beg not to be sent to school.
The ayahs were told not to do anything extra for her – to the point that her mother had to come in every morning to take her to the toilet. The class teacher was told that she should make no allowances for Shefali’s difficulties – either she would keep up with the others or she would fall behind. The children were encouraged subtly and overtly to isolate her, going so far as to leave her alone in a darkened classroom when all the others went out to play.
The greatest barrier to inclusion is not overcrowded classrooms, untrained teachers, inaccessible toilets or lack of money. The greatest barrier is bad attitudes.
A school that truly wants to include children will do it. They will figure it out as they go along, just as my husband and I did when we adopted Moy Moy. And that brings me to my last story. This one happened in a small village in Himachal Pradesh.
Gamru is a simple school in Himachal. No fancy equipment, no major funding. All they’ve got is a genuine love for children, a bedrock belief that every single child has potential and a principal who stands like a rock of conviction and belief.
Gaurav is profoundly deaf and has Cerebral Palsy and intellectual impairment. Kailash was born with a severe disfigurement of the skull which has left him with only one eye and a very strange looking face. Both of them went first to other schools where they were “deeply unhappy”.
At Gamru, they were welcomed and included. Their teachers helped the other children to accept and embrace them through example, direction and high expectations. They adapted the learning environment so that it worked for both boys and both are not only thriving academically (at their own different levels) but are happy, popular and emotionally healthy.
Gaurav and Kailash demonstrated their potential for learning once they found the right school. They succeeded – each in his own way. Isn’t that what school should be about? Turning on the light of learning in a child’s eyes; helping her find her path, helping him discover what he was sent here to do.
And isn’t this what we want for our children? Whether they have disabilities or not, don’t we want them to grow up to be good people, caring people, people who accept and look out for one another?
Because one day – and you can write this down – one day, if we live long enough, all of us will be disabled. And we are going to need and want people around us who have practiced kindness and compassion from an early age.
Inclusion just makes sense.
As Martin Luther King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The Right to Education Act has bent that arc closer and closer toward the just world we all dream of for our children and our grandchildren. It’s up to us to see that the arc extends to every single child in India.