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  • Manasa Veluvali

Moving from Special to Inclusive Education: How Can Assistive Technology Help?

What is Special Education?

While the origins of the term ‘special’ in ‘special needs education’ are difficult to pinpoint, it is now the most widely recognised term for education catered to the needs of neurodivergent children and children with a variety of disabilities. Special needs education evolved in response to the complete exclusion of children with disabilities from any form of education, and sought to provide individualised instruction and support to such students. This involves unique plans for children based on their needs, abilities, and goals. Teachers in special education schools are specially trained in educating this demographic, which allows them to take a more individual-centric approach to education, as opposed to mainstream schools which follow standard curricula for all students. This defining feature of special education — that it is separate from mainstream education — was once the reason for its popularity, but is now being exposed for its inadequacy.

Increasingly, people who have themselves undergone ‘special’ education, are calling attention to the harmful impacts of this education model. While spaces reserved for disabled children have their merits and must be preserved, special needs education effectively functions as a form of segregation between children with and without disabilities. Not only do children without disabilities have no exposure to their disabled peers, fostering less acceptance amongst them, disabled children internalise feelings of marginalisation and find it hard to be accepted among their peers and community.

The usage of the term ‘special’ is in itself criticised; the disabled community has time and again asserted that it comes across as patronising, condescending, and suggests that non-disabled folks are uncomfortable saying the word ‘disabled’, as though disability inherently has negative connotations (it does not). Disabled and neurodivergent activists have made their stance on this term very clear, and we intend to respect and follow their lead.

Why must we shift towards inclusive education?

For all the reasons mentioned above, there is a slow but steady shift towards moving from a ‘special’ education model to an inclusive education model. In inclusive education, students with disabilities are educated alongside their non-disabled peers in the same classroom. In an inclusive classroom, general education teachers and teachers trained to teach students with disabilities work together to meet the needs of students. Students with disabilities are typically expected to learn the same things as their peers, but with curriculum modifications and assessment adjustments. For instance, a child with dyslexia who struggles with reading and writing may be given much simpler tasks as well as simplified and modified assignments. Inclusive classes are set up in several ways. Some use a collaborative team teaching (or co-teaching) model. With co-teaching, there is a disability inclusive teacher present in the room all day. Alternatively, some schools offer a split between inclusive classrooms and special classrooms, so that children also get the opportunity to get more individualised support. Ultimately, the best choice is where the child flourishes in their personal goals and is given every opportunity to assimilate with their peers and be included in all aspects of society.

Including children with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers promotes a welcoming environment where differences are valued, and learning opportunities are accessible to all.

This is crucial to understand why the term ‘special’ was disliked in the first place; no one’s needs are special, they are only different. ‘Special’ indicates an additional effort that must be made, or that one has to go out of their way to accommodate someone, when that should never have been the case. All of our systems must be made accessible by default, and inclusive education is a firm step in that direction.

Even though challenges to implementing inclusive education systems remain, inclusive education — which fully engages all students, including students with disabilities or other learning challenges, in quality education — has proven particularly effective in helping all students learn.

Are we legally bound to implementing inclusive education?

The short answer is yes. India has expressed its commitment to the total inclusion of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life, across international conventions and national legislations, including in matters of inclusive education.

First, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006 (UNCRPD), the landmark convention asserting the rights of persons with disabilities at a global scale to total inclusion and participation in all aspects of society on an equal footing with others. Article 24 of the UNCRPD emphasises the right of persons with disabilities to ‘an inclusive education system at all levels,’ including ‘reasonable accommodation’ and ‘individualised support’ within the general education system. The Article further outlines specific types of support, including provisions for Braille, alternative script, alternative and augmentative communication, among other assistive tools and devices.

Children with disabilities are entitled to free and compulsory education under The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009. Further, The Right to Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) (2016) drew heavily on the UNCRPD and upheld the right to inclusive education. Similar to the UNCRPD, the RPWD Act (2016) outlines specific ways in which education can be made inclusive, including making buildings and campus facilities accessible, promoting early identification of specific learning disabilities, providing individualised support to maximise their physical and mental development, increasing training of teachers in alternate modes and forms of communications and in the use of assistive devices.

As it is true for many struggles for social justice, while the legal recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities is a big step forward, the implementation of the laws is still majorly lacking. The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the state of inclusion of the disabled community. While we are committed to inclusivity through our laws, we have a long way to go in making it a reality.

Inching towards inclusivity with technology: How can AT and AAC help?

The potential for inclusion brought about via technology is vast. Technology, here, refers not only to sophisticated and complex devices, but also to simple low-tech devices. One particular form of technology that is indispensable for the disabled community is Assistive Technology (AT), which comprises a range of devices that helps enhance or maintain the functional abilities of persons with disabilities, the ageing population, or even those who are temporarily experiencing functional impairments. Inclusive classrooms stand to benefit from the range of AT products emerging in the market, which are increasingly being made accessible in low and middle income countries such as India.

AT is crucial for ensuring persons with a variety of disabilities can participate in all life activities with minimum hindrance from their disabilities and/or the environment they are in. For children with mobility impairments, this would mean providing them with wheelchairs or mobility aids customised to their needs, and having buildings and campuses that are fully compatible with their use. For many children with disabilities, a subsection of AT devices known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) are known to be particularly helpful in the classroom.

Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) is any method used to communicate that is not verbal. This could include gestures, facial expressions, body language and books. Essentially any method used to convey a message that does not involve speech is AAC. AAC primarily benefits anybody who cannot reliably use speech to communicate. This includes children and adults who have gone through some kind of traumatic brain injury or suffer with illnesses like cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, apraxia of speech, head and neck cancer, and stroke. It also helps people who aren’t able to speak clearly or lose the ability to speak in certain situations (such as those with severe anxiety or Selective Mutism).

There are several types of AAC across the spectrum of low tech to high tech, the use of which can be adapted to the resources available to the inclusive schools. Some types of AAC are provided below:

  1. Unaided AAC (without tools):

    1. Sign language

    2. Body language

    3. Facial expressions

  2. Aided AAC (with tools):

    1. Paper, pen and pencil

    2. Magna doodles

    3. Letter boards

    4. Clothing, objects, accessories

  3. Device applications:

    1. Avaz AAC

    2. LetMeTalk

    3. Verbally

    4. FlipWriter

    5. GoTalk Now

Making AT and AAC accessible to low and middle income countries

Technology in low and middle income countries (LMICs) occupies the strange position of being simultaneously one’s best bet at increasing the reach of accessibility tools, whilst itself being an inaccessible medium. There are global efforts to make Assistive Technology more accessible to LMICs, which have gained even more importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has promoted the need of technology-driven solutions in the world of healthcare.

Currently, the market potential is huge for developing and producing the right assistive devices at affordable costs. Efforts like the Global Cooperation on Assistive Technology (GATE) and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Priority Assistive Products List (APL) are working towards improving access to high-quality and affordable assistive products. The WHO is also supporting governments to develop national assistive technology programmes.

In a country such as India, community based approaches may be the most effective way to enable underserved groups to access assistive technologies. Non-profit organisations too have a crucial role to play in increasing the accessibility of assistive devices by distributing them to populations who could not afford them otherwise, although there are sustainability issues with this model which relies on donations. Ultimately, for a truly sustainable model of delivering affordable and high quality assistive products, wide scale support from governments, NGOs and the private sector will be required to ensure that disabled communities have a right to assistive products.

Providing children with disabilities an inclusive and encouraging environment can go a long way for allowing disabled persons to thrive in this world. We are all better off with the presence of assistive and accessible technology, and we are certainly better off when interacting and growing alongside our disabled and non-disabled peers alike.

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