Inclusive Education in Goa

Iris C F Gomes

No one chooses to be born with a mental or physical disability, but we, as human beings, have a choice to be accepting of those who are differently-abled. As if living with the challenges of a disability were not enough, most differently-abled children have a hard time finding a place in mainstream education. Despite the Right to Education Act, many schools decline admission on the grounds of the child’s disability. This says more about the schools that do this than the child’s scholastic capabilities. The automatic response is that there are special schools that cater to these children.

Is it true then, that mainstream schools cannot meet the demands of differently-abled children and children with learning disabilities? While there are some children who will require specialised treatment that might not be feasible within a normal scholastic setting, such as those with a high level of mental retardation, there are those with mild to moderate physical disabilities and learning disabilities who can be integrated successfully within mainstream schools.

At times, it is possible that children with learning or mental issues may be able to move on from a specialised institution to a regular academic environment. Sethu, an NGO in Goa that works with children with learning problems, has been able to evolve a transition to a normal setting. It has success stories wherein children with seemingly incapacitating autism have moved on to normal schools to become high achievers. This proves that giving up on these children is unfair treatment and disrespectful to their potential.

When we say mental issues, we include children suffering from mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, etc that can be can be treated with medication and counselling. These children, much like those with physical and learning disabilities, are as competent as normal students but need more attention and empathy from teachers and fellow classmates.

Testimonies from young people and professionals with disabilities have shown that inclusive education is an emotionally and psychologically healthy endeavour. Most report that being introduced to normal schools at a young age put them at an advantage because it gave them a chance at acclimatising to the environs and the regular students were young enough to approach them and offer help without preconceived prejudices.

Financial advisor Avelino de Sa, who has his own consultancy called Star Investments, went to Red Rosary High School, Miramar, and did his higher secondary and college education at People’s Higher Secondary School and S S Dempo College of Commerce and Economics respectively. His physical disability never came in the way of his academic career and he wants parents of differently abled children to understand the importance of inclusive education. He says, ‘Whatever I am today, it is because of inclusive education. Self-confidence develops when you are part of a normal school structure rather than a special education school. Successful differently abled professionals are all products of inclusive education.’

Author of Stories in Rhyme and The Pepperns and Wars of the Mind, Frederika Menezes never allowed cerebral palsy get in the way of attending People’s High School in Panjim. She was encouraged to take up writing after she dictated what turned out to be an exceptional poem to her English teacher, who wrote it down for her. ‘Inclusive education is extremely important for the individual to know that she/he is a part of a very diverse society and not set apart from it. It also shows, or should show, society that inclusion is part of our daily lives, so why even think twice when it comes to education?’

Visually impaired artist Stacy Rodrigues has had mixed experiences regarding her disability, quite possibly because she appears to be independent in spite of it. Her time in Carmel Higher Secondary School is remembered fondly for the help she was given by her classmates as they would repeat things that were written on the board and even write her notes for her. Attending the Goa College of Music was a harrowing time because of the lack of empathy on the part of the administration and the students. Hers is a perfect example of the need to sensitise people at every level about disabilities.

There are obstacles that need to be overcome to sustain an inclusive educational environment as Sethu discovered. Sethu has a programme called Tarang, which was initially set up to launch the ideal inclusive education preschool. The resource room at Chubby Cheeks Preschool in Pilerne, where 25 children received training and many moved on to regular primary school, was meant to continue for two years while training teachers and then the reins would be passed on to the school. However, this did not happen and two years went on to eight years. The main problems were the preschool’s lack of funds and the teachers, once they were trained, were moving on to better paying jobs. Hence Tarang has been modified and now Sethu goes to preschools with special needs children and offers teaching services and training for teachers rather than setting up resource rooms for them.

There are other problems, as Fr Dominic Savio Fernandes, Principal of Pope John XXIII, Quepem, found out through his research. He explained at the National Conference Paradigm Shift in Inclusive Schooling (26-29 June 2017) that, based on his random sample of 30 special educators, some educators felt that constant changes to the scheme and lack of quality monitoring were hampering its productivity. Most reported that only 54 secondary schools in Goa have resource rooms dedicated to children with special needs. The reason for this could be that schools are more result oriented and focus on regular students. The process of certifying a child with special needs at IPHB (Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour), and having resource room teachers approved by the Education Department every year is tedious. No special papers are set for special needs students, keeping in mind their disabilities. Many special educators are not regularised even after working for years, causing diminished enthusiasm for the job. The teacher-student ratio at the moment is 1:20 when ideally it should be 1:8, which would allow the teacher to focus effectively on the different needs of the students. Mainstream teachers need to be trained to detect children with special needs to decrease the burden on special educators. Fr Dominic Savio said that he was disappointed to find out that, with all these problems to be addressed, the BEd (Bachelor of Education) course for Special Education has been phased out in Goa.

Some of the recommendations offered for inclusive education were:

  • Aggressive campaigning to create awareness about the Children With Special Needs (CWSN) scheme.
  • Infrastructure to cater to the needs of CWSN, providing accessibility and a barrier free environment.
  • Introduce technology in schools that will aid CWSN.
  • Differentiated teaching with curriculum modification so that each individual child’s needs are met.
  • Parents should be involved with everything their special needs child is doing in school to keep in step with and assist the child specific plans made by the special educator.
  • Inclusion of vocational courses and making sure vocational trainers are available for the same.
  • Inclusion of training in identifying and reaching out to CWSN in the regular BEd programme.
  • Sensitisation of parents, mainstream children, and administrative authorities of schools.
  • Special educators should be treated on equal footing with general teachers.
  • Workshops to keep all involved in special education, including parents, updated on new findings in the field.
  • Having a team of experts to deal with CWSN in every school.

Brotherhood, a socio-cultural organisation which collaborated with the Centre for Disability Studies and Action of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Disability Rights Association Goa (DRAG) to hold the conference, has advocated a School Inclusive Education Development (SIED) team be instituted at every school and has developed (with the help of the Centre for Disability Studies and Action) a list of sixteen quality indicators to evaluate the changes being brought about in schools. This will provide better understanding of requirements that need to be met. The efficacy of the project will depend on how open the schools are to inclusive education in their mission and their commitment to provide education to all without discrimination.