Kohima: As Nagaland strives for an inclusive education, a one-day workshop under the banner ‘A step into inclusion’, organized by the office of the state commissioner for persons with disabilities, was held at Hotel Japfu in Kohima on Tuesday, with educators from across the district who deliberated on the way forward.

Principal Director of School Education, Shanavas C, who was also the special guest of the workshop, highlighted how inclusivity should start from one’s home. He pointed out how parents of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) are often apprehensive of “exposing” the child’s disability.

“Our inclusive education doesn’t start from the school level education. It starts from the home where you give them confidence to come forward to the mainstream and attend schools. That is a major challenge we have in Nagaland,” the officer said.

Shanavas, however, added saying that it is the collective responsibility of all people to encourage children with disabilities and give them confidence from early childhood onwards.

According to UNICEF, inclusive education is the most effective way to give all children a fair chance to go to school, learn and develop the skills they need to thrive. Inclusive education means all children in the same classrooms, in the same schools. 

It means real learning opportunities for groups who have traditionally been excluded-not only children with disabilities but speakers of minority languages too.

While the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 places focus on inclusivity, he said that often inclusive education only remains on paper.

He therefore urged the need to change the narrative, hoping that the workshop will be a beginning towards bringing about inclusive education in Nagaland.

The education officer suggested that a convergence of governmental departments is required towards planning welfare activities and intervention for persons with disabilities. He assured that the department is trying its best to make learning inclusive.

Shanavas highlighted that learning among children with disabilities have been more affected as schools remained closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Limited interventions like providing sign language video lessons were made to bridge the learning gap, he said.

As accurate data collection of persons with disabilities remains a challenge in the state, he informed that the department is working on maintaining data for students with disabilities—both in government and private schools.

Children with disabilities: Marginalized and excluded

“Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups,” said Diethono Nakhro, State Disability Commissioner. She said that as disability in general was totally neglected for the past many years, all matters concerning children with disabilities, including education, was also completely neglected.

Nakhro added saying “One of the biggest challenges that we have with children with disabilities and, of course, persons with disabilities in general is the lack of data. In many ways, they continue to be the ‘uncounted’ section of society”.

She said that this situation cannot be allowed to continue and urged the need for all concerned departments, organizations, and stakeholders to come together to bring a change.

As the School education is one of the major departments, she said hope that the departments would work closely, especially in the implementation of the NEP where equity and inclusion is at the heart of the new policy.

“The policy is designed to avoid segregation and isolation of ethnic and linguistic minorities, those with disabilities and also those who face learning difficulties due to language barriers and are at the risk of educational exclusion. However, as we all know, policy may be top-notch, but ultimately what will matter is how it’s implemented and put into practice on the ground,” she said.

As education is a concurrent subject, she hoped that the state will make a policy which will ensure that the education system becomes fully inclusive. 

She added saying “The approach to education of children with disabilities currently is basically an appendix, an afterthought that is added after everything is said and done. This is not acceptable. Inclusion has to be on the table as we discuss and plan the overhauling of the education system and inclusive education specialists have to be at the table to give their valuable inputs. We cannot continue making the education of our children with disabilities an afterthought.”

Although there are special schools where children with different types of disabilities are taught separately, she said that the overall aim now has to be about an inclusive education system. She mentioned that as per section 16 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, all educational institutions funded or recognized by the State Government shall provide inclusive education to children with disabilities.

While this was notified on March 30 in 2020 in Nagaland, she pondered if schools in the state are even aware of the notification and the implications. “In any case, merely issuing a notification does not automatically make something happen. Without putting the mechanisms in place, inclusive education will just remain on paper while our children with disabilities continue to be ignored and excluded from our education system – left behind like they don’t matter,” she said.

Inclusion should be made possible

According to Kopele Tepa, proprietor and special educator at Bumblebee Inclusive School Kohima, inclusion should be made possible. To make it possible, she said, there should be no barriers for children with disabilities to learn and make friends with their peers.

While inclusion is a gradual process, she said that the right attitude of the parents and teachers largely contributes towards acceptance among children. She cited how inclusive teaching has been reflected among children as they learn and understand about inclusivity.

Mental health issues: Children with disabilities at greater risk

Themmungla Raman, a clinical psychologist, said that children with disabilities are at greater risk of undergoing mental health issues in the fight for inclusive education. She said that a disability which is not visible is complex.

Addressing the educators, she said that if any possible sign of mental health problems is observed in a child, there should be immediate intervention. Early intervention is important, she said. Raman also advised the educators to avoid labelling (calling) children.

She cited that even positive labels such as gifted, handsome, artistic, and so on, can create a negative impact as a child may be focused on living up to the expectations, leading to a fear that he/she will be unloved if these labels are no longer associated with the child.

“We need to be very mindful and intentional when we choose to work with children. We need to comment on the behaviour and not the child. There is a crucial difference,” she said. Raman cited an example saying “You put a lot of hard-work into your art project” is so much better than saying “You are such a great artist”.

Not doing enough for children with special needs

“I think we have not done enough for our children with special needs (CWSN) as of now,” said Asano Sekhose, chairman of the Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE). While the board has made interventions, she said that there is need to do more.

She said that as per NBSE, relaxations and exemptions are made in examinations where CWSN are permitted to use an amanuensis, scribe or reader. She said accessible examination centres are also allotted with suitable seating arrangements and extra time (compensatory time) is given for all subjects.

She informed that CWSN are listed and their exam papers are also evaluated separately. In 2021, 12 CWSN were listed for High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) and two for Higher Secondary School Leaving Certificate (HSSLC).

Sekhose said that certain challenges like baseline survey at all levels of education, school and community support system, limitations on inclusive textbooks, lack of untrained teachers, lack of digital learning materials, and so on need to be addressed. As a way forward, she suggested the need to review guidelines for CWSN. She informed that by 2023, board exam fee may likely be relaxed for CWSN.  

She sought the collective support of all in understanding and accepting the various challenges and to further pave the way for an inclusive education system in the state.

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