Special Needs and Education in India

A learning disability can be defined as a neurological disorder that affects one’s ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention.

The term “Learning disabilities” is an umbrella term that describes a number of other, more specific disabilities, such as auditory processing disorder (inability to correctly perceive sound), dyscalculia (affects a person’s ability to understand numbers or even learn math facts), dysgraphia (affect’s a persons fine motor skills, for example, their handwriting), dyslexia (affects reading and   processing skills) and Non Verbal Learning Disabilities (NLD, significant difference between higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visuospatial and social skills). When these disabilities occur individually, they are termed Specific Learning Disabilities or SLD. When an individual shows symptoms of two or more SLD, it may be termed as a Learning disability.

LDs generally affects an individual's abilities to interpret what they see and hear, or even to link the different information from various parts of the brain. As a result, these individuals can have specific difficulties with spoken and written language, self-control, attention, or coordination. Due to this, the individual’s schoolwork can be hampered- they are unable to do maths, read properly, or write essays.

Research suggests that 15.7% of Indian students are diagnosed with Learning Disabilities. A study was conducted by Shipra Singh et. al, a group of Indian child psychologists, on the rates of specific learning disability in India- it was a 5-year long study, with a total of 2015 children diagnosed with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs). The study found that most of the children who had a diagnosed learning disability were between 8-12, and students in English medium schools. These children had a considerable delay in seeking medical help and were mostly referred due to academic issues. The study concluded that there was a general lack of awareness of the symptoms of SLDs, early identification, and referral to the appropriate services.

A learning disability cannot be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong challenge. However, with appropriate treatment and interventions, people with learning disabilities can achieve success. The most common treatment for learning disabilities is special education. Generally, trained educators perform a diagnostic educational evaluation for assessing a child’s academic and intellectual potential, in addition to the child’s level of academic performance. Once this evaluation is completed, caretakers, teachers, and doctors take the basic approach to teach learning skills, by building the child’s abilities and strengths, while compensating and correcting for disabilities and weaknesses. Special Needs refers to the special educational requirements for those with learning disabilities, emotional or behavioural problems, or physical disabilities. It is important for children with learning disabilities to have an organization or institute that provides to their demands while working on their strengths and compensates their weaknesses.

The Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) suggests that there are a plethora of reasons why kids do not get diagnosed with SLDs. They cite reasons such as poor exposure of children to formal teaching (and hence either a delay in the diagnosis or no reason to get tested), and the spectrum of difficulties and their severity, confounded by the environmental, cultural and economic disadvantages as why children do not receive a timely diagnosis or a diagnosis at all. Apart from this, the RCI also suggests that the crux of the educational system, with its emphasis on knowing and theory, rather than learning and application, is very ill-suited for any child with a learning disorder. The RCI guideline on the assessment procedure of students with LDs is vast. It talks about pre-referral discussions, possible modifications in classrooms, and parent consent and interviews, as well as how an ideal assessment must be carried out. It also provides guidelines on curriculum-based, outcome-based, and dynamic assessments that are provided in select hospitals in India such as NIMHANS in Bangalore and Lokmanya Tilak M.G Hospital in Mumbai. Finally, they provide prevention and intervention strategies that are suited to the Indian scenario. It is a holistic, utopic guide on how to effectively deal with students and children who may and do have learning disorders. While these guidelines are comprehensive and can make a difference if adhered to, not every recommendation can be followed by every school. Indian schools, especially public ones, simply do not have enough resources to be inclusive.

India’s policies regarding special needs children still remain pretty unclear.  The “Children with Specific Learning Disabilities (Identification and Support in Education)” bill, which was introduced in 2016, identifies specific learning disabilities, such as dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, and makes guidelines regarding improving the awareness and promoting research on learning disabilities. The bill makes recommendations on hiring teachers. The bill also attempts to help with early detection of learning disorders and making testing and treatment options readily available and affordable to every sector of the society. Since the bill has been introduced fairly recently, these changes are yet to be made. India also has governmental organizations pertaining to education, which have a focus on creating awareness and removing the stigma around learning disabilities- even if they may not always have the same opinions (for example, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment that runs separate schools for special needs children while the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) that promotes that these children should be included more in regular classrooms and schools).

While there are plenty of governmental initiatives on reducing the stigma and creating an inclusive atmosphere for children who may have learning disabilities, the Indian School system as a social environment still has a long way to go. Colleges generally do not accept students who have special needs, owing to the stigma and bias associated with individuals who have learning disabilities. Apart from this, the Right To Education Act that mandates that no child must be detained before grade seventh (to avoid emotional stress, loss of self-esteem, and avoidance of behavioural problems that are known to be caused by being detained), makes it more likely for a student with a specific learning disability to be diagnosed fairly late, as parents believe that if the child is passing exams, there must be no “problem”. This, combined with the overall low awareness of educational institutes about the symptoms of learning disabilities, makes it difficult for individuals to receive timely treatment.

Finally, no specific guidelines for inclusivity result in the schools and colleges having to decide how to be more inclusive. But more often than not, the needs of individuals with learning disabilities are not met. This leads to the terrifying statistic from the Census of India that 89% of kids with learning disabilities are enrolled in primary school, while only 8.5% actually go to secondary school, and finally, only 2.3% of the special needs children reach higher secondary. Other than this, various factors, such as economic, social, legal, and technological issues do come in the way of a child getting the education they deserve.

While there are so many laws- why is it that students with learning disabilities do not have the same standard of education as the ones without an LD? What changes can be made in the house, classroom and in the society to be more inclusive?  How difficult to implement are these changes? In the next article, we will talk more about why schools find it difficult to adopt the recommendations provided by the government, and what they can do to be more inclusive.

Harshi Shetty