Path from Marginalized to Mainstream: Reality behind Indian education system in India

In Indian society, where everyone aspires to be perfect in all matters, learning disabilities are not discussed, even within families. Where it is socially acceptable and even encouraged to blatantly compare and contrast children’s achievements among parents, social life is very stressful for those who have children with disabilities. Traditionally, individuals with learning disabilities are labeled as dumb, imperfect or inferior. They are typically marginalized, not only by the members of the larger society, but also within their own homes.
After struggling within the social and educational systems in India, my husband and I made the difficult decision to move to the US to provide our daughter with the education that our country could not.
When we talk of India, most people in the West imagine bustling metropolises with booming Information Technology centers. Many attribute India’s impressive 9% growth rate in GDP to its education system assumed to be more rigorous and academically-oriented than the US education system.
However, what escapes the attention of the West is the reality of education available to the common Indian. According to a report on basic public education in India by Anuradha De of the Institute of Human Development in New Delhi, India, only 53% of schools in rural North India were actively engaged in education. Only 11% had working toilets and only 41% had drinking water.
According to a recent census, two thirds of all schools in the slums of Hyderabad in southern India are private. Parents send their children to private schools for quality English instruction, even if it stretches their finances. With their ethos of “education is money,” these schools are extremely reluctant to take up the challenge of educating children with special needs. Even regular schools with Special Education programs like The Cathedral, John Cannon School and Dhirubahi Ambani International charge more than Rs 100,000 annually. With an annual Gross National income of Rs. 21,900, such fees put these services well beyond the reach of the average Indian. According to a study by the Stamford University in 2003, 86% of the population lives on less than $2 per day; 44% lives under $1 per day.

There are many schools in India which cater to the needs of children with various disabilities, but such an education has its own limitations. Aikiya and Alpha to Omega learning centers are well-known schools for disabled students in Chennai, India. But even these excellent institutions face the ignorance and apathy that traditional Indian society shows those with learning disabilities.

Through our own experiences, I’ve come to believe that the kind of change India needs will only come when society fosters sensitivity to the concerns of special-needs individuals by mainstreaming them with typically-learning children of their own age.
Padma, whose child has a congenital anomaly and attends Bronx High School of Science in New York, explains her decision to emigrate from India. “(In India) [t]here is a whole lot of social stigma while looking at people with special needs. Not only children, but even adults stop and stare at special needs people. That makes them become more self-conscious of their disabilities unlike in advanced countries like the US, where my son has never felt that he is a special-needs kid.”
Before taking a similar step, my husband and I decided to try to find solutions within India. In our search for a private tutor, we chanced upon two highly-trained and experienced teachers specializing in special education. Our child did quite well under their tutelage, but being a gregarious individual, needed to interact and socialize with typically-learning kids.
Richard Riser, director of the London-based educational organization was quoted inIndia Together saying, “Special schools are dead-ends for special-needs children. They promote isolation, alienation and social exclusion. It is this dominant attitude of exclusion which needs to be changed to build harmonious and compassionate societies.”
For a well-adjusted and fruitful future for our child, we decided to move to the US in 2001 when our daughter was five years old.
When we arrived in Texas, we found that the US public school system had all the legal mechanisms we were seeking in place. By law, public schools are mandated to educate special-needs people until the age of 21 and prepare them for adulthood. But not all US public schools have good special education programs - much depends on funding. Those schools offering higher teacher pay typically have less turnover and offer more training in the newest techniques in special education than those schools with fewer resources. We discovered after the fact that according to the American Federation of Teachers, out of 50 states, Texas ranked 32nd in the nation for teacher pay in 2004-2005 compared to New Jersey’s 3rd ranking, where we now live after relocating in 2007.
Navigating the Texas school system was frustrating. The school district was reluctant to spend their precious resources on an additional special-needs child. Initially, our daughter was held back a year and was given additional English language instruction through their English as a Second Language (ESL) program, hoping this would be sufficient for her to catch up with typically-learning kids.
When this did not bring the desired results, my child’s pediatrician wrote to the school district, copying the principal and other staff, to address her needs. This was the much-needed push that forced the school district to act.
Yet problems persisted.
Although the senior staff were highly-trained in their subjects, there was a dearth of experienced special education teachers in the elementary school. Every new school year brought a new set of teachers, who took time in getting to know their students and their needs. This lack of experience, combined with high teacher turnover, prompted one parent to move her daughter to an expensive private school for learning difficulties in Dallas, some 20 miles away.
In spite of these challenges, compared to India, this was heaven. Here I found support not only from the school, but also from the community. Though the school was bound by bureaucracy and limited funding, the empathy and awareness people had for special-needs kids was heartwarming, and I believe was the result of mainstreaming.
Compared to Texas, our current school district in New Jersey has been very proactive with our child’s education. Her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was configured well–ahead of her attending classes. She has a speech therapist and an FM (assistive listening) system to help her hearing, especially in a crowded and noisy classroom setting.
The school also recognizes that children with disabilities should continue with their education during the summer break to avoid regression. Every year, our summer school has a new curriculum topic; last year’s was recycling and saving the environment. My daughter visited the farmer’s market, where she learned to buy a list of fruits and vegetables, use cash and keep her receipt. She learned about recycling by visiting the local recycling center and participated in an exhibition of recycled art.
And we have come across some great success stories. We met a child with cerebral palsy who moved from India where she was studying in a special institution. Since she is now part of the public school system, she has improved her social skills, gained higher self-esteem, and performs better academically.
We know we are fortunate to give our child this education, but there are millions of children who are not so lucky.

India passed The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act in 1995, and was the 19th country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. Though the disability act is very detailed - addressing schooling, employment, and accessibility in public places – it has not been implemented rigorously.
Until 2001, individuals with disabilities were not given a separate category in the census. The U.N. Manual for the Development of Statistical Information for Disability Programs and Policies 1996 estimates the percentage of disabled in India could be a double-digit figure, but no concrete figures exist to date.
According to a Commonwealth Foundation and the Leonard Cheshire Disability survey, about 95% of disabled individuals in India do not have access to healthcare services, education or employment opportunities. Despite government regulations, most buildings and public transport are not accessible. In contrast, Padma’s son zips around his New York school and neighborhood in his motorized chair, while it is next to impossible to push a baby stroller down most Indian streets.
A study done by Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that Special Education teachers in New Delhi earn approximately Rs.6000 per month, while another study by Gerald Burke and Phillip McKenzie reveals that regular education teachers earn much more, at Rs. 17,000 per month. This disparity is an area that a growing superpower like India must address.
India has a long journey ahead. A change in attitude towards people with disabilities will only come when more disabled people are included in regular schools and the workforce; they must be given the opportunity to participate in society as individuals of equal standing. Educating them alongside other children is the first step towards a more tolerant and well-adjusted society.

About the Author
Sumukha Ravishankar is a multi-tasking wife and mother originally from India, now living in suburban New Jersey. Thoroughly involved in her children's educational needs, she is also interested in writing, reading, social work and the arts. She is an avid listener and member of WNYC, New York Public Radio.


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  2. Very, very true about the pay structure. Goa is the only state in the country where special education teachers are on the UGC payscale on par with all other teachers. Need to mobilize such a step in all states, maybe at the central level. I talked to a B. Ed college principal in Bangalore about starting an LD B. Ed in his college. He said there would be no candidates. He could be right... who would go to college for a whole year to earn Rs. 5000? There is not much interest in such a program. So I went around to schools to ask how many students with special needs they had. I was assured there were none. I can't believe it. Really??!! India must be the only country in the world... Anyway, there are no tests standardized on Indian students which can be used for identification of students. (Only one- DTLD, which can't be used beyond 11 years of age). Where to begin....??
    - Padma