New Delhi: Ranjit and Reena Mondal, parents of an energetic five-year-old, wanted to give their son the best education possible. Unhappy with the local government-run school their son had attended for four months, they complained and were told he could shift to a private school.
But Ranjit Mondal’s income as a newspaper vendor didn’t allow for that. So when a primary school in a leafy lane of South Delhi’s Hauz Khas came calling, saying it had grant money from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Mondals signed up.
The only catch was that the Aadi School served mostly children with cerebral palsy.
As advocates for India’s differently abled fight to get seats in mainstream classrooms, the case of the Aadi School demonstrates the reverse. Its practice of “inclusion”—the term for mixing special-needs and regular children in classrooms —asks able children to join those who might use wheelchairs or walkers.
“We realized that we could not advocate inclusion for the disabled while keeping our own gates shut for the typical or normal child,” said Renu Singh, director of Action for Ability Development and Inclusion, or Aadi.
She knew the task of convincing parents to send their children would be difficult. A marked shift from the usual scenario of parents pleading for admissions, the Aadi School staff went out to woo support from families, especially those in nearby areas. Manavi Jalan, principal of the school, organized street theatre and community workshops showcasing Aadi’s students as “normal” too. Jalan and teachers tried to convince parents that their children would lose nothing in the specialized environment of Aadi. “We knew it would not be easy,” Singh said. “We carried the stigma of being a special school.”
Their target market soon became families such as the Mondals, who had high expectations for their children’s education but could not afford pricey private schools. Reena Mondal describes her son’s previous school as apathetic, filled with uninterested teachers. “It had come to the point where he just did not want to go to school,” said the sari-clad housewife.
A complaint to the school did not elicit results. Around the same time, through neighbourhood grapevine, the Mondals came to learn of Aadi’s effort, made possible by a grant from USAID, which funds development programmes—including several for disabled children—across India.
The parents asked their landlord, a doctor, if sending their son would be safe. “She told us that there was nothing wrong in our son studying with children who are in wheelchairs,” said Reena Mondal.
The mother made her choice. Her child would attend Aadi. Months later, she says she is glad she decided as much. “These days, my son wants to attend school. He also talks about his friends all the time,” she said. “I ask him if he feels bad about children in wheelchairs, and he says no, he does not mind.”
For Aadi, parents like the Mondals give strength to their experiment, which mixes pupils from nursery to Class 1. And because most are poor or lower middle-class neighbourhood children, they too are receiving an opportunity that would otherwise have been impossible. In fact, some experts define inclusion to encompass all children with barriers to an education, including gender and poverty.
Many private schools classify themselves as “inclusive” institutions, but if special-needs children are kept in a separate classroom, disabled advocates say that doesn’t count.
Meanwhile, the law mandates government schools admit anyone but if teachers do not cater their methods to the disabled, then the environment too does not meet the goals of inclusion.
“Inclusive education is still a packaged term. It needs unfolding,” said Poonam Batra, a professor at the Maulana Azad Centre for Elementary and Social Education at the Central Institute of Education of Delhi University. “The whole idea of inclusive education… to try it out this way… gives the opportunity for educators.”
Mumbai-based Roda Billimoria, who has worked in teacher training for nearly three decades, says instructing mixed classrooms can be very challenging for teachers, especially those trained in special education. “A teacher needs to add so much more,” she said.
At Aadi, two teachers, one special-needs and one general, often combine efforts to lead a class. During a recent Hindi lesson, one teacher practised a poem with a mixed group. Another worked on motor and sensory skills with two severely-disabled children, separating coloured blocks and balls. The disabled children leave their wheelchairs outside and sit at desks, tied to their chairs so that they do not topple.
The Aadi School continues to adjust. With the newly-admitted able to run around, it has learned to close its gates. There are new toilets. Teachers have learned how to juggle children with different abilities. But school officials said they are most heartened by a change in the mindset of the local community. One family at a time, Aadi’s staff says, can transform how Indian society views the disabled.
When admissions begin next month, for the first time since the school opened admissions to the general public in 2005, Aadi will fill all its seats.