During the two years of my teaching fellowship with Teach For India, I felt helpless whenever I saw punished children with learning disabilities (LD) standing outside their classrooms or in the playground. All I could do was discuss learning disabilities with the teachers, in the hope of shedding light on their unique needs. But what would these teachers do with this awareness? Imagine a government teacher, perennially walking into an overcrowded classroom with stacks of pending administrative work to complete, no special education training resources, and a lack of awareness about learning disabilities. Do you think this teacher would always be able to cater to students with LD under such circumstances?
A popular keyword in schools and policies nowadays is inclusive education. But, what exactly is inclusive education?
Inclusive education promises to cater to the learning needs of each student present in the classroom at a systemic level. These students include those children with certain learning disabilities. Now, what’s a learning disability?
In the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, where they are defined as “intellectual disabilities”, learning disabilities are described as follows:
“Specific learning disabilities” means a heterogeneous group of conditions wherein there is a deficit in processing language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself as a difficulty to comprehend, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations and includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and developmental aphasia.”
The identification of learning disabilities in India is recent—they were officially recognized in 2009 when the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act of 1995 was amended to include the category of Specific Learning Disabilities. It is only over the last decade that awareness of children with LDs has increased in India, and it’s no wonder why.
According to recent UNESCO data, approximately 10 to 12% of the student population in India suffers from LDs—these figures are worse for boys as compared to girls. What does this mean in reality? That in an average Indian classroom of 30 to 40 students, there are at least four to six students whose learning needs are more specific than the others.
How Badly Do Learning Disabilities Affect Students?
Unlike children who are physically handicapped, learning disabilities cannot be detected by looking at a child. These children face problems with neurological processing—which are often invisible to the untrained eye—and due to a significant lack of awareness in Indian classrooms, such students are often characterised by the teachers as lazy, dull, and disobedient.
“Currently I manage the operations and staff training across 20 public and low-income private schools in Andhra Pradesh,” says Prashanth Kumar, Academic Excellence Manager at LEAD School and a former Teach For India fellow. “On average, each of these classrooms consists of 30 students. When I inspect the schools, I always see a few students in each campus sitting outside the class, or in the corner with a notebook and pen. Such students have LD. If the teachers cannot control their behaviour, such students are labelled as ‘disruptive’, and are asked to leave the class. If students do not have behavioural issues, but cannot follow the class due to LD, teachers make them sit in the classroom corner and just write down multiplication tables or practice their handwriting. Such students are labeled as lazy or dull headed by the teachers. I believe that such students are systematically oppressed due to the lack of awareness and support in our education system.”
These issues are compounded by a lack of teachers’ awareness on LD. Kumar adds, “Many just brush the issue [of LDs] off, stating that these issues are just ‘drama’ and that the students are completely fine.”
This awareness gap festers thanks to the large and diverse classes that teachers face on an everyday basis—even if teachers recognise learning disabilities, they may not always be able to act on them. Anjali Vyas, currently pursuing a Master’s in Education from TISS and a former Teach For India fellow, recalls her two-year fellowship of teaching in a low-income school. “Back in 2017 when I was teaching, I could only name a few LD,” she says. “There were certain students who found it difficult to concentrate or focus in the classroom—I started one-on-one discussions with them after school to understand why. I realized all these students could understand the curriculum up to a certain point: but, some couldn’t grasp things in larger groups and some couldn’t sit in one place during the class. Retrospectively, I didn’t think of these traits as signs of LD at that time, I thought they had different learning styles. But, I was unable to individually cater to them in a classroom of 40 students.”
Much of this status quo can be progressively addressed if there is a will from the school management to do so. But this is not always the case.
“Towards the end of my fellowship, I asked a student to copy a paragraph from his textbook—yet, he still couldn’t copy letters correctly even in Grade 7,” Vyas continues. “It was then that I started viewing his issue through the lens of learning disabilities. Along with my other co-fellows, I tried raising this issue with the school management. Instead of acknowledging the issue and looking for a solution, the school authorities seemed to have stigmatised LD and wanted to ignore them.”
But, even when teachers do try their best to cater to the diverse needs of the classroom, engaging with parents can be a challenging task too. As a teacher in a government school for two years, I distinctly remember designing different lesson plans and assessments that would cater to my students’ diverse needs. Yet, even then, I felt unequipped to talk to the parents regarding their child’s learning disability: in the majority of the cases, parents themselves lack awareness. “The parents I worked with were from low-income communities. Some weren’t aware of learning disabilities and were very concerned by the stigma surrounding ‘disability’,” corroborates Vyas.
One way of solving this could be to ensure that better assessment frameworks for LDs are developed: these can help provide official weightage to a diagnosis, thus supporting the needs of a student with an LD.
To that end, in 2015, the Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India (DALI) was jointly developed by the Gurugram-based National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) and the Centre’s Department of Science and Technology. DALI is the first-ever dyslexia assessment tool catered to Indian needs. Available in multiple regional languages, the tool enables teachers to assess “why the student has not been able to do his homework, whether the teaching was proper or not and whether there’s a learning problem.” Such support can help education practitioners identify how the LD manifests.
Yet, while DALI is a progressive intervention, it helps identify LDs—which still doesn’t answer the questions of which pedagogical tools might help teachers in the classrooms. This leaves dedicated teachers on their own, forcing them to develop their own pedagogical innovations in the absence of much support. After recognising that some of their students had LDs, Nagadurga M.D.N,, a banker and a former Teach For India Fellow, began designing their own in-class activities.
“The primary goal was to grab their attention towards the book and make them follow instructions,” says Nagadurga. “Creating such content for every subject is definitely a challenge, but there was a shift in confidence levels when the students with LD could execute these activities. I saw some basic improvement in a few students who put in the effort and consistently attended classes. I couldn’t see any changes in students with LDs who irregularly attended school.”
Clearly, while individual efforts are admirable, they cannot always achieve the desired results in a complex society. A much larger support system needs to be raised for not only students with learning disabilities, but for the teachers aiming to support them too.
What Do India’s Laws Say About Learning Disabilities?
India’s policy frameworks, although well-intentioned, do little to address the material realities of children with learning disabilities in India. The 2016 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act does good to define intellectual disabilities while also ensuring some affirmative action measures for persons with LD in higher education and government jobs. Yet, it only mentions identifying these children and choosing “suitable” pedagogical and teacher training methods for them. Nothing concrete is said about standardising the diagnosis, certification, pedagogical details, or assessment patterns that need to be tailored for these groups.
This is concerning as the process of certifications and concessions varies widely from state to state, and mostly depends on the jurisdiction of the head of educational institutions. Both the CBSE and ICSE educational boards state that the head of the schools have the authority to issue certificates, but the process of how to do so remains unclear.
Due to the lack of an integrated national policy for children with learning disabilities in India, a few states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, and Delhi have developed their own measures in recent times. For example in Goa, the government has developed schemes to provide financial benefits to children with learning disabilities which in turn might motivate them to attend school regularly. In Maharashtra, a learning disability centre has been set up in every district of the state and a separate state Committee has been assigned to look into the matter. However, due to a lack of required trained personnel and infrastructural resources, it gets difficult for all states to enable such shifts.
The Indian education system cannot claim to be inclusive by just recognizing the needs of different students: action needs to be taken to tackle the problem too. The Ministry of Education needs to urgently develop a national policy for LD. Alongside this, a disability training program needs to be launched for teachers, while psychologists and counsellors can be appointed across schools, especially government ones, to augment teachers’ efforts. Unless all the stakeholders in our education system are equipped to empower all the children within it to realize their potential and fulfill their dreams, inclusive education will remain an elusive dream.
Featured image: students seated at an event in Goa; courtesy of Frederick Noronha (CC BY-SA 4.0.).