Education for Children with Special Needs: Difficult but Possible

Article excerpt

IT IS RECESS TIME AT THE AMAR JYOTI SCHOOL in East Delhi, India, and the quadrangle is full of children, their happy voices echoing in every corner of the campus. At one side, a group of boys is playing cricket, while at the other, a vigorous game of "catch" is on. From a window overlooking the quadrangle, young Ritu shouts to her friends below that she is coming to join them in a game of throw ball. "I am fixing my calipers", she tells them, and in a few moments she is happily part of the game. After the short recess, the children make their way back to the classroom, some on wheelchairs, others using crutches and some wearing calipers or hearing aids. There are also a few visually challenged children, who use the tactile path to find their way to their classrooms; along the way, their friends lend a helping hand when needed.

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Having pioneered nearly 25 years ago the concept of integrated and inclusive education, Amar Jyoti provides an eloquent testimony to the efficacy of this approach. When I first started the school with a group of 30 children with and without disabilities, literally under the shade of a tree near the college where I used to teach, many thought I was crazy. In fact, they told me I did not know what I would be up against, but with some colleagues who volunteered their time I went ahead. We had decided that we would admit children in equal numbers, with and without disabilities, to truly practice integration, starting at the nursery level.

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As word spread about the school, we had parents bringing in their polio-afflicted children who could only crawl. So we set up a workshop to make calipers and crutches on the terrace of our house. The "office" was made of wood taken from packing cases donated by fruit vendors. Soon after, more children started coming in. To make it easy for the those who were from the most vulnerable strata of society to travel, a rickshaw was procured to fetch them free of charge from neighbouring localities. As the children progressed, a class was added every year. Social agencies and philanthropists extended their full support, and three years after the school's establishment, the Government of India started giving aid grants.

The Amar Jyoti school, which has over 600 children, from the nursery to class VIII levels, now has its own building and, instead of a rickshaw, a bus with a hydraulically operated ramp.

Rehabilitation services at the school are provided with a holistic approach by therapists, doctors, orthotists, special educators, vocational instructors, psychologists and neurologists. The teachers training and child guidance centre offers much needed services to schoolchildren, including in-service teachers in managing the disabled. Equal importance is being given to sports and cultural activities that inculcate confidence and self-esteem; vocational training is also part of the curriculum.

The study centres of the National Institute of Open Schooling and the Indira Gandhi National Open University in the premises fulfil the needs of children with severe disabilities and those who cannot attend regular schooling. Capacity-building courses are also extremely popular. The University of Delhi has granted recognition for a four-and-a-half-year course in physiotherapy, while teachers' training in special education is also given, in collaboration with the Rehabilitation Council of India and the Madhya Pradesh Bhoj Open University.

Amar Jyoti's most precious assets are its alumni, who are engaged in different vocations today. Take Lakshmi, for instance, who came to the school when she was four years old, literally crawling. She was soon fitted with braces, given crutches and provided gait training. She also underwent regular physiotherapy and within weeks of meticulous attention became independently mobile. For her family and neighbourhood, this was a miracle. Other, bigger miracles were to follow. …