By Rony Sebastian
My dear friends,
This is the story of my action at home.
India, since the time of its independence, never gave enough attention to the primary education sector. The first five year plan (a model of development planning that India adopted from USSR) emphasised only on the development of secondary and higher education. As a result, we have constructed world class higher educational institutions such as IITs and IIMs that produce people like Sundar Pichai (Google CEO) and Raghuram Rajan (Former governor of RBI). These higher education institutes were sufficient enough to satisfy the aspirations of the Indian elite, who always looked up to the living standards of developed countries and dreamt of reaching there someday. It is not a surprise that India produces the largest number of engineers in the developing world. The Indian middle class found it the easiest way to reach up to western world and fulfil their dreams.
On the other side, the primary education sector has been brutally neglected by the government of India for decades. It curtailed the development of the vulnerable sections and kept the rural India under inexorable darkness. As a result, India has one of the poorest performances in primary education among the developing countries. 26 % of the total population are still illiterate in this country (a person who can write his/ her name in his/her mother tongue is considered literate in India). Education became a fundamental right in India only in 2009, after the enactment of the ‘Right to Education Act’ (RTE). Pakistan, India’s neighbouring country recognized education as fundamental right in 1973, much before India. Apathy and negligence towards primary education and health sector can be considered as one of the major reasons behind the sever inequality that exists in India today, which is otherwise the second fastest growing economy in the world after China.
Kerala, a state where my action at home is supposed to be done is an exception among Indian states when it comes to primary education and health due to many favourable historical factors. Kerala is one of the first states that got exposed to English education from Christian missionaries who came to India along with colonisers. Kerala also witnessed a massive communist movement, and the first democratically elected government in Kerala was led by the Communist party. Since they were committed towards the upliftment of the downtrodden section (at least in the initial years), the government established primary schools and government-run hospitals across the state. This special attention on education and health later made positive impacts in the state and it now has the highest literacy rate in India (93.91%) along with the best performance in human development index.
Though the policy of free and compulsory education played a vital role in making people literate in Kerala, the quality of education given by the government run schools has always been a topic of debate. Corruption and unprofessional teaching methods in the government schools created a miserable learning environment for the majority of the students. This condition later paved the way for the emergence of private owned English-medium schools where they ensured better infrastructural facilities and learning materials by accepting a huge amount of fees. But only the upper middle class families could afford such schools and it made a disparity between the students of government-run Malayalam (local language in Kerala) medium schools (who are mostly from poor or middle class families) and the students of private owned English medium schools.
The poor learning conditions in government schools created a situation where only the smartest or the fittest students would survive and go for higher education. A huge number of people who completed or partly completed their primary education started migrating to Middle Eastern countries in nineteen-eighties for seeking jobs, mainly in unorganised sectors. This movement actually saved Kerala from an economic crisis and even to this day, Kerala’s economy is hugely depended on the income of Non Residential Indians (those who work outside India). The lack of proper professional education can be considered as one of the major reasons for this crisis since the majority of the people who completed primary education were unfit to pursue higher education and the lack of job opportunities in the homeland discouraged a lot of people to study further.
Children with disabilities, especially from poor background have been the major victims of this unaccommodating and non-inclusive education system. They suffered in all possible ways without getting proper attention and support from any part. As I mentioned above, only the fittest and smartest survived from the schools. I remember when I was a student in a rural government-aided school, some students, despite having unfavourable circumstances succeeded because there were some teachers who were generous and passionate enough to support them. But the system was always indifferent towards such students. It never offered them a space to grow.
When I decided to work on dyslexia, the school where I studied was my only concern. I was under the assumption that the school is still lacking a space to accommodate ‘differently-abled’ children. I thought that most people including teachers are not aware about learning disabilities that their students may have. I never heard anything about learning disabilities when I was a student. So I thought the situation has not changed yet and there needs to be a strong campaign to make the people aware about the issue. Spelling mistakes and reading difficulties have always been treated as signs of low IQ or laziness. It has never been identified as a disability that needs to be treated and tackled.
I realized in my initial days of research itself that I was wrong to some extent. There have been a lot of changes taken place in the system I too was once a part of. I also came to know that the government established a centre in all the districts, which is called BRC (Block Resource Centre) to take care of the ‘differently-abled’ students in the schools. The education department of the government of Kerala officially started using the word ‘inclusive education’ and a lot of projects have been proposed for the welfare of ‘differently-abled’ children, including those with learning disabilities. I was also lucky enough to meet a number of devoted teachers who work passionately with BRC for the betterment of ‘differently-abled’ children. There are trained teachers in BRC who take care of students with various learning disabilities. The school teachers who once were completely ignorant about such issues now know basic facts about learning disabilities and a few of them have heard the word ‘Dyslexia’ somewhere.
Though there were positive changes that I could see, I was in no position to leave my topic and choose another one. Because I realised that there are several places where awareness has to be made on learning disabilities. Pupils with learning disabilities get treated only when it is recognised by a teacher or someone from BRC. In most of the cases, parents (especially the less educated) fail to identify the problems of their children. If they are well aware, it would be easy for them to understand the struggle that their child going through and help him/her in the possible ways available to them.
Anganwadi teachers are the people who get to know the children in the first stage of their educational life. Anganwadi teachers also usually have a personal relation with the parents of the children they teach. Since they are the people who introduce letters and numbers to the children, they need to be aware about the challenges the children may face once they start the process of learning. I realized that approaching anganwadi teachers and making them aware is the most easiest and effective way to reach parents.
I approached the Social Welfare Department authorities with the help of my father and proposed the idea of the awareness programme. They allotted me 30 minutes in the monthly meeting of anganwadi teachers to talk on learning disabilities.
Prior to conducting sessions, I wrote a blog in Malayalam on dyslexia after doing a brief research on it. Then I made a booklet using the same content and took 500 hard copies. My first session on dyslexia was conducted in a place called Sreekandapuram on March 13, 2017. Teachers from 128 anganwadis attended it. The second session happened in a place named Irikkur on March 17, 2017, where I could reach out to teachers from 91 anganwadis. I also distributed the booklet that I had made and requested them to talk on the issue to the parents. I emphasised the importance of identifying the children with learning disabilities and giving them extra care and support.
The BRC authorities agreed to keep the copies of my booklet with them and distribute it in their training programmes. I have already distributed the copies of the booklet among the teachers of the school where I studied. I know these things will not make gigantic changes in my society. But I felt extremely happy when one of the anganwadi teachers came to me and told that she can recollect the names of a lot of children who seemed to have learning disabilities. But she was not in a position to help them since she was totally unaware about the issue. She had never heard anything about learning disabilities before. She added that somebody should have talked about the topic before, so that she could have helped a lot more children. I hope teachers like her who attended my session are now capable of identifying the children with learning disabilities. They are not ignorant about the issue anymore. Even if they can’t train the child systematically, they can at least make the parents alert and that may help the child in the future. There are supporting systems available, but the people need to know how to reach it at the right time. I hope, my effort made that distance a little shorter.
(Rony Sebastian volunteered with Pravah ICS from September – December 2016 and was placed with partner organisation Jatan Sansthan in district Rajsamand.)