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Special education in India at the crossroads.

Mom: Arun, bring your homework diary.
Arun: I have only math and science homework today.
Mom: Show me! Hmmm! What have you written, Arun? I can't make any sense
at all. Again you did not copy the sums or your science homework
correctly from the blackboard. How many times have I told you to
carefully copy what the teacher writes on the board? Look how you
have spelled Siecnec. I don't know what to do with you.
(Arun sits still on the chair as his eyes well up with tears.)

Here, a frustrated mother and her son in India are tangled in a repeat of a scene that can be seen in families with children with dyslexia every evening as they work toward completing the child's homework. Both feel helpless. The mother thinks her son's carelessness is the reason for his mistakes, whereas the real reason lies elsewhere. Soon, the problem will spin out of control as the child with dyslexia faces increasing academic challenges. It is estimated that at least 10 percent of India's children have dyslexia (Krishnakumar, 1999; P. Mirchandani, personal communication, June 6, 2006). Parents and teachers struggle as they do not know the reasons for the child's failure and hence label the child as lazy (Mirchandani, 2006).

In this article, we will first discuss the multi-tiered Indian education system. Then, using dyslexia as an example, the authors will explain the many challenges in identifying learning difficulties, to illuminate the rough road ahead for special needs children in inclusive settings. The burgeoning efforts of individuals and organizations to support and educate children with disabilities also will be discussed. Finally, the authors will present recommendations.

The Indian Education System

The Indian government faces the challenge of achieving Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which means Universal Elementary Education, by the target date of 2010 (Soni, 2004). Meeting a goal this ambitious is possible only if governmental agencies at the federal, state, and local levels work cooperatively. Currently, 5.5 million teachers teach 202.5 million children in about one million schools. Statistics show that 82 percent of the population has access to primary education within a one-kilometer radius of home (Rajakumar, Kumar, Uppal, & Devikar, 2005). One of the primary objectives of SSA is to educate girls and children with special needs, currently less well-served.

School choices and multilingualism in India make the education system complex and multi-tiered. The federal, state, and city government schools and private schools are open to all children. Except for city government schools, the medium of instruction is English in all schools. Private schools charge monthly tuition and generally cater to the higher strata of society. Government schools also may charge tuition on a sliding scale. Although parents enjoy freedom of school choice, their financial condition ultimately determines where they may enroll their children.

Indian states are organized linguistically, but one will find many languages spoken in each state. "Linguistic diversity of India poses complex challenges but [it] also [provides] a range of opportunities" (Rajakumar et al., 2005, p. 36) for teachers as well as learners. Fortunately, the curriculum framework of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (n.d.) suggests that teachers view this multilingualism as a resource rather than a challenge.

The Many Challenges of Identifying Learning Disabilities

Assessment and Multilingualism. Although the benefits of educating a child using multiple languages are many, the multilingual and the multi-orthographic systems prevalent in India pose fundamental issues in assessing children with special needs (Ramaa, 2000). The mother tongue of children could be different from the language spoken in a given state, and the medium of instruction in school could be a third language. For example, a child who speaks Tamil, a Dravidian language, at home may live in a northern state where Hindi is widely spoken and attend a school where the medium of instruction is English. This simultaneous exposure to three languages could be demanding even for a typically developing child, and much more so for a child with a learning disability.

To rule out whether the child's learning difficulty is caused by limited proficiency in the language of the school or by a learning disability, assessment is essential. However, "identification and diagnosis of learning disability is very difficult because ready-made standardized assessment tools are not available in all of India's different languages. There is an urgent need to develop standardized ... assessment instruments" (Ramaa,2000,p.271). Most of the assessment tools are in English, adapted from Western countries. Efforts to translate assessments into relevant languages have been limited. For example, some researchers have developed their own tools to conduct studies, but no effort has been made to mass-produce them. A few others have translated the available tools from English into vernacular languages and re-standardized them, but this, too, is done on a limited scale (Ramaa, 2000).

Yet another complexity is that multilingualism Perpetuates social strata. Children who come from affluent and educated families are proficient in the English language and, therefore, are assessed in English, yet children who hail from economically and socially disadvantaged families speak only the vernacular languages and, therefore, are not able to benefit from such testing measures. Thus, more privileged children are likely to receive a more appropriate education than are less privileged children.

Lack of Awareness and Teacher Preparation.

The lack of awareness about learning disabilities among the general public, parents, and teachers is yet another issue. Many parents are not comfortable accepting their child's learning disability and often lack the knowledge to use appropriate remedial education for learning difficulties. The social stigma of a learning disability often prevents parents from seeking appropriate remedies for children with dyslexia ("Stigma stands," 2004). Further, the lack of parental awareness prevents them from disclosing to their child's teacher what they know to be true about their child with special needs. As one educator contemplates,

We are an inclusive school, and we expect parents to declare the problem so we can assess the situation to check if we can provide the right kind of support to them, but some parents resort to concealing the fact ... lest we reject admission. They pretend ignorance and wait for us to discover the child's special needs. (N. Sundaram, personal communication, June 17, 2006)

The anguish of parents is in some ways justified. They seek schools that have empathy for atypically developing children. Although some schools are inclusive, acceptance is based on the school's capability to provide services and is not, therefore, guaranteed.

Teachers need training to address the special needs of children. Neither preservice nor inservice teacher preparation adequately addresses basic pedagogic skills in literacy (Rajakumar et al., 2005). Therefore, teachers are unable to design appropriate learning experiences to suit their students' diverse learning needs, since they lack preparation in various instructional models and differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 2003). The authors talked with a school principal and a school counselor in Mumbai, who expressed concern that teacher certification programs are short of sufficient courses in special education to prepare general education teachers for inclusive classrooms, and so creativity and trial and error guide the course of remediation (N. Sundaram, personal communication, June 17, 2006; P. Mirchandani, personal communication, June 6, 2006).

Until recently, special needs children were placed in self-contained programs; now, inclusive programs are mushrooming around India. Soni (2004) examined the perception of children with special needs related to their education and found that 62.5 percent of the children felt that their teachers had a positive attitude toward them and that they invested extra time to help them. The same study found that slightly more than half of the children with special needs responded that teachers sometimes pose questions to students with disabilities. Their response to whether or not the teachers encouraged them to ask questions was a resounding and discouraging never. One can deduce that while the intentions of teachers are generally noble, they are unable to effectively engage students with special needs in the classroom.

Lack of In-house Screening. Finally, the government makes no coordinated effort to identify children with special needs. Even though the government runs screening clinics, they are overburdened and inadequate to meet the demand. The counselor from Mumbai explained that the city and state schools in Mumbai simply require their students to obtain a certificate from the government screening clinic to receive appropriate services (P. Mirchandani, personal communication, June 6, 2006). Schools have no in-house screening and only a few well-informed school principals refer students to counselors for screening. The counselor added that very little screening is performed at the primary level. A similar sentiment was expressed in a column on dyslexia that ran in a national newspaper: Ramakrishnan (2006) declared that schools often recommend failing students to counselors for assessment and remedial education. Thus, schools only identify special needs children either when there is recurring failure or if the principals are aware of the importance of early identification.

In summary, the lack of assessment tools in vernacular languages, lack of awareness by and training for teachers, and insufficient diagnostic opportunities pose tremendous challenges in identifying children with special needs. Although SSA promises appropriate education for all children, the need continues for a concerted effort by the government to translate its policies from paper into action. The responsibility of identifying special needs cannot be left to parents. Delaying remedial education will only damage the child's self-esteem; therefore, early intervention is the immediate need. We shall now examine the efforts of the government and individual organizations to bring about change.

Organizational Efforts

Dyslexia, an Example. "Dyslexia ... is the most common and most carefully studied of the SpLDs [specific learning disabilities], affecting 80% of all those identified as learning disabled" (Karande, Sawant, Kulkarni, Galvankar, & Sholapurwala, 2005, p. 96). Both governmental and non-governmental organizations have tried addressing this prevalent problem, with varied and often limited success. In 1991, the Madras Dyslexia Association (MDA), a nonprofit service organization, was formed by special educators, philanthropists, and parents (Krishnakumar, 1999). MDA strives to promote awareness, provide training for teachers and administrators, and offer support sessions for parents (Radhakrishnan, 1999). The association holds two training sessions annually with the goal of building up a force of capable teachers and administrators who will, in turn, prepare other teachers. The training sessions address the issues of identification, assessment recommendations, and remedial education for children with dyslexia. MDA recognizes that dyslexia is a subtle disability and that many talents can be lost for sheer lack of timely help (Radhakrishnan, 1999). To identify learning disabilities, MDA runs Ananya, a full-time and part-time remedial program for children ("Workshop on dyslexia," 2004). When children join this program at a school's recommendation, they are pulled out of school anywhere from a term to a year, based on need and progress. The remedial program focuses on the child's strengths and interests as starting points. (More information can be found at ananya_activites.html.) In addition, Ananya conducts yoga, karate, and dance lessons for children with learning disabilities and operates resource centers in 13 schools so that students can attend remedial classes on the school premises.

The significant change happening at the state level pertains to a new policy that affects children with dyslexia. "The Tamil Nadu Government Order ... issued on February 18, 1999, marks a progressive step towards helping children with dyslexia, which is now recognized as a learning disability" (Krishnakumar, 1999, p. 1). As a result, children with dyslexia now have concessions in school board examinations. Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are the only two states in India to offer such concessions. B.S. Virudhagirinathan, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist, applauds this step, yet warns that some parents do not take advantage of the concessions, as they are ashamed to admit their child's dyslexia ("Stigma stands," 2004). Some parents believe that their child's disability is the child's fault (Spaeth, 2003).

A school principal (N. Sundaram, personal communication, June 17, 2006) adds another dimension to this discussion. In Maharashtra, parents make a beeline to the government-accredited centers to get their child certified as having a learning disability so that their child will be exempt from one language. This way, the parents hope to improve their child's overall academic performance. Since education in India is academically driven, scoring high in examinations is closely connected to getting a competitive job or being admitted to institutes of higher education.

Some well-informed parents, however, seek help from professional agencies. N. Sundaram, a school principal, explains the types of services offered at his school, which clearly are available only to city dwellers and to those with financial resources.

We have students with dyslexia, ADHD, and ADD. We also have two children who have autism and one with Down syndrome. We accepted these three children only because the parents have managed to find additional support at their own cost. We have a psychologist who is experienced with special needs children. She helps in designing activities for these children, and we also seek guidance from the agency that provides occupational therapy and periodic assessment for these children for which parents pay. (personal communication, June 17, 2006)

The government has focused much of its attention on SSA. Soni (2004) argues that SSA's focus is to propel an integrated and inclusive education, and its zero rejection policy helps ensure that all can take advantage of the Indian education. However, the difficulty lies in transferring this philosophy to the field. Even though the government policy takes a stand, individuals have to hold the government responsible for implementation. Soni (2004) believes changes will occur when parents demand an appropriate environment and education for their children. Such a change needs to happen at the grassroots level. Yet parents in villages and rural areas are usually unaware of the services available for their children and thus need to be informed.

Implications and Recommendations: A Long Road Ahead

Even though the challenges in identifying children with special needs are daunting, one cannot make excuses for not providing remedial programs. The efforts of associations and individuals are commendable, but these are only small steps. A synthesized effort by the government, parents, and teachers is necessary for the picture to change. Therefore, it is important to make necessary changes at the policy level and implement them. First and foremost, India must fully adopt and implement the Biwako Millennium Framework of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission (UNESCO, 2003), which endorses an inclusive, barrier-free, and rights-based society for people with disabilities in Asia. This regional framework promotes early detection, intervention, education, and anti-discriminatory measures to protect women with disabilities (Punani, 2004). India "should take the lead in adopting the framework as a policy document for its implementation within the envisaged time-frame" (p. 44). UNESCO and the Government of India plan to set up an International Centre for Special Needs Education in New Delhi to cater to the needs of the Asia Pacific Region, which will be located on the campus of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (National Council of Educational Research and Training, n.d.). Perhaps this will intensify the government's efforts to promote special education.

The Indian government, working toward the goal of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Universal Elementary Education), must collaborate with UNESCO to launch public awareness campaigns on special education and gender equity. Creating public awareness is fundamental to alleviating the social stigma attached to special education. Part of such awareness programs should be workshops for teachers and parents that help them identify indicators of bigger issues in child development in the initial stages.

Preservice and inservice teacher training programs must offer courses in special education and provide training in remedial teaching strategies and differentiated instruction with sound pedagogical knowledge (Rajakumar et al., 2005). Schools must be encouraged to actively pursue grants to provide professional development opportunities in special education for its teachers. When possible, teachers must be encouraged to participate in international conferences so they will have the opportunity to interact with the international professional community on special education and to keep current in the field.

The government must take measures to mitigate the pressure on existing clinics and reach out to a wider cross section of the population of children (P. Mirchandani, personal communication, June 6, 2006; N. Sundaram, personal communication, June 17, 2006). It should set up several zonal centers and resource centers for assessing children, and these centers could actively be involved in identification of needs and provision of remedial services to children with special needs without further delay. Such an arrangement would not only benefit the children with special needs, but also provide economic opportunities for the paraprofessionals and professionals working with children and families. Similarly, publishers of assessment instruments, the so-called Indian professional diaspora, and professionals in India should make every effort to translate assessment tools into vernacular languages. If assessment tools are available in many languages, then all children can be assessed, as opposed to only English-speaking children.


Karande, S., Sawant, S., Kulkarni, M., Galvankar, P., & Sholapurwala, R. (2005). Comparison of cognition abilities between groups of children with specific learning disability. Indian Journal of Medical Sciences, 59(3), 95-103.

Krishnakumar, A. (1999). Coping with a disability. Frontline, 19(8).

Mirchandani, P. (2006). Dyslexia. India Parenting, an on-line news letter. Retrieved on June 8, 2006, from www.

National Council of Educational Research and Training (n.d.). Retrieved on November 3, 2006, from http://ncert.nic. in/sites/inclusiveeducation/inclusive_education.htm

Punani, B. (2004). Integrated education for children with disabilities. Journal of Indian Education, 36-46.

Radhakrishnan, L. (1999). Unsung heroes fight unseen problems: MDA tackles dyslexia, and puts the pieces in order. Retrieved on June 7, 2006, from file:///C:/Documents%20and%20S ettings/thirumva/Desktop/Dyslexia%20in%20India,06/ Masras%20Dyslexia%20Association.htm

Rajakumar, P., Kumar, S., Uppal, S., & Devikar, V. (2005). National curriculum framework. National Council of Educational Research and Training. New Delhi: NCERT publication.

Ramaa, S. (2000). Two decades of research on learning disability in India. Dyslexia News Worldwide, 6, 268-283.

Ramakrishnan, H. D. (2006). Helping them overcome dyslexia. The Hindu, April 15, 2006.

Soni, R. B. L. (2004). Disabled students' perceptions about their education. Primary Teacher, 29(2), 77-93.

Spaeth, A. (2003). Mind at risk: Dyslexia is less common in Asia than the U.S., but it's still a big and largely unnoticed problem. In Times Asia, September 8, 2003. Retrieved on June 21, 2007, from 501030908/dyslexia_asia.html

Stigma stands in the way of dyslexia cure. (2004). The Hindu, August 15, 2004. Retrieved on June 7, 2006, from www.

Tomlinson, C. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

UNESCO. Biwako millennium framework for action towards an inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society for persons with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific. Retrieved on November 1, 2006, from shougai/english/biwako/contents.html

Vandenbroeck, M. (1999). The view of the Yeti: Bringing up children in the spirit of self-awareness and kindredship. The Hague: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Workshop on dyslexia. (2004). Health, December 10, 2004. Retrieved on June 7, 2006, from 12workshop.asp

Vidya Thirumurthy is Assistant Professor, School of Education, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. Brinda Jayaraman is Counselor, ASHA Counseling Center, Chennai, India.
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Author:Thirumurthy, Vidya; Jayaraman, Brinda
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Aug 15, 2007
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