‘Special Education vs Inclusive Education’ – Unwrapping the Debate on Helen Keller Day!

It’s been 142 years since Helen Keller, an American author, lecturer and political activist was born in Alabama, U.S.A. She is celebrated for being the first deafblind person to earn a B.A. degree and begin a revolution in the level of awareness in society about the capabilities of people with blindness and deafness. One of her famous quotes: “Education should train the child to use his brains, to make for himself a place in the world and maintain his rights even when it seems that society would shove him into the scrap-heap.” For schooling, Helen received both special education as well as mainstream school education and she has written much about her challenges and her victories in both.

More than a century later, we at Vision Empower wanted to highlight this never-ending debate and share with you the different views on Special Education and Inclusive Education society harbours till date. We asked children with visual impairment their views on the same. Let’s gauge how far we’ve come or how far we are yet to go in this journey of making education inclusive in India from their perspectives.

Special education is a system of education that responds to the needs of children with disabilities whereas Inclusive education is intended to provide for the needs of all students within the general classroom where students with special needs learn alongside their peers without special needs.

A special school gives its students accessible resources and teaches them the compensatory skills they need to deal with their disabilities. They intend to provide for making extracurricular activities like sports, dance, and computer training accessible for their students. However, as VE founder Vidhya says from her experience, that in most mainstream schools children with visual impairment are required to be content to simply get a seat in the class while their sighted peers participate in the very visual teaching methods used in the classroom or during the physical education and activity periods.

Aishwarya Othena, a salient contributor to VE and a person with visual impairment recently shared in a talk that during her school years, she struggled with her identity as a blind child because there was a stigma attached to being blind in a mainstream school where the majority of her peers were sighted. However, her peers who went to special schools had learnt to be comfortable with their blindness and accept themselves and others with their disabilities very easily.

Yet, our findings show that in inclusive schools, students get the exposure and opportunity to have friendships with children without disabilities which enhances their social skills. Aishwarya also shares that her biggest takeaway from studying in an inclusive school has been gaining the confidence to interact and exist in a world that is mostly sighted.

Since 2020, Inclusive education is an essential part of the National Education Policy. But instead of being excited, a barrage of pertinent questions comes to our mind. ‘Are the mainstream schools equipped enough to have children with disabilities like visual impairment? Are these schools truly inclusive?’. We need to examine whether there is the necessary infrastructure which will allow a child with visual impairment to pursue an education of their choice without any discomfort. Are we equipped with teachers who are trained to teach students with different learning abilities, whether it is a student with a disability or not? Similarly, at the special schools, are we focusing on the overall development of a child or are we only concerned about providing them with a few skills that would help them sustain and live with the physical challenge?

We also ask ourselves, Can the quality of special education be such, that special schools can be turned into inclusive schools instead? So parents of sighted children don’t hesitate to send their children to a special inclusive school and in turn, contribute to a truly inclusive nation in the future?

As we observe Helen Keller Day today, we look forward to an ecosystem where a new Helen Keller wouldn’t feel out of place in solving a math problem as she did when she was in college a century ago and she still does in every college today.

Watch the youtube video here!