Enabling higher education for students with special needs - Hindustan Times

Enabling higher education for students with special needs

ByHindustan Times
Apr 14, 2022 05:50 PM IST

The article has been authored by Reena Gupta, director, Office of Learning Support, Ashoka University.

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance – African proverb

 Over the years, the Indian education system has made a few important advances towards inclusion.(HT FILE)
 Over the years, the Indian education system has made a few important advances towards inclusion.(HT FILE)


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There’s no doubt that a community thrives on education and if it includes its every member, the progress is manifold. We in India pride ourselves in our diversity and have an unmatched synthesis of its various components. However, it is also true that we tend to ignore the unique talent this diverse population brings - especially in education. Over the years, the Indian education system has made a few important advances towards inclusion. For further progress, higher education institutions (HEIs) need to play a more proactive role. They are a bridge between school education and industry readiness of the students and since they lay their claim to prepare the next generation of global citizens, they need to raise the bar in their contribution towards creating an inclusive society, especially for disabilities.


Education for people with disabilities has been neglected for way too long in our country. From awareness to sensitization to resource availability – the lack of each has precluded many people with disabilities achieve what they could. Stigma attached to looking or thinking differently than the “accepted” norm has pushed many people into oblivion. Very few among them fought the odds out and braved the inequality deeply embedded into our education and social system. Those are the ones who have contributed significantly to the world of academia, the social and development sector as well as businesses, globally. 


Decades of advocacy campaigns led by people with and without disabilities has recently prodded the education system in India to undertake reforms and introduce policies that promote inclusion for disabilities. While a lot of reforms have been made over the years, many of them have remained on paper, waiting to be implemented more forcefully and with more accountability on ground. 


It is imperative that the stakeholders in various institutions understand the unique perspectives students with special needs bring into the learning and teaching experiences that make education an enriching environment for all, including neurotypical students, teaching faculty and the overall community.  Academic and infrastructural support provisions for disabilities need to become integral to any institution’s curriculum and infrastructure design. These aspects are addressed by various components of Universal Design for Learning and can be adopted with a focused approach, committed resources and budgetary allocations.


The policymakers at the government level as well as decision makers at respective institutions need to mobilise their resources and adopt effective measures that address the needs of all learners at HEIs. A well-coordinated effort between different ministries at government level will serve as a huge impetus towards creating a norm on inclusion for disabilities in India. 


While the need is clear, resources both in terms of trained personnel and financial, can pose hurdles and need thorough planning. To address personnel issue, professionals already in the field can be leveraged to conducting training programs for inclusion in higher education. Financial constraints, if any, can be managed by putting an initial focus on no-cost initiatives such as spreading awareness and reshaping the mindsets and attitudes of people involved; required budgets will follow once there is a wider acceptance for the required projects. This will help in bringing about a gradual shift in the institution’s thinking process to integrate the universal accessibility norms into the pedagogy and teaching methodology, which, in turn, will encourage more professionals to join the movement. 


Effective implementation of the above steps by the government agencies and HEIs will free up the energies of experts in this field. They will then be able to focus on building these norms further and updating them as per the global advances and local learnings instead of spending all their efforts on only to advocate for the basic, existential rights of people with disabilities. 


The higher education institutions can then follow these norms to ensure smooth transition for students with disabilities from school to college, ease their integration into the social environment of the campus, and facilitate access to course material and technologies for improved academic experience through academic accommodations, and other pedagogical provisions. 


A well-intended and a structured approach is the only way to take the challenges head-on and align the institutions with new reforms in the higher education ecosystem. 


Most recent example of the structured approach in education followed at the highest scale is the one at the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic two years back. Learning was affected across the education system, but students with disabilities whose education was already hanging on a very thin thread were impacted more severely because of their own unpreparedness for anything unexpected. Not that they had barrier-free learning opportunities available to them before pandemic, but online mode of learning added to the already existing challenges.  With the sudden need for new ways of learning and communication across the world, the new technologies were immediately and meticulously introduced and developed for education and industry usage. Incidentally, some of these new developments served as long-pending corrective measures for the student population with disabilities. It is during this period, the authorities took stock of gaps in academic infrastructure for students with disabilities, besides the digital disparity that affected learners from far and beyond. Accessibility, for the first time in our country, got the desired attention. Within a few months, the system broke free from the past and reimagined the world of education.


Leading an independent fulfilling life is a basic human right and if we truly believe that education is fundamental to this right, it ought to be available to all. The HEIs in India can be instrumental in promoting this inclusive education approach and make education a most rewarding experience for every learner. 


(The article has been authored by Reena Gupta, director, Office of Learning Support, Ashoka University.)




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