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Education

Interview | Mahima Bhalla on Why We Need to Shift from 'Special' to Inclusive Education

Mahima Bhalla, a learning support teacher at a private school, envisions an inclusive classroom which caters to children with and without disabilities learning alongside each other.

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Belongg is putting together the ‘Inclusive Schools Festival’ on July 16 and 17 with the goal of curating important conversations focused on creating inclusive school environments for students who typically face prejudice and bullying based on their gender, sexual orientation, disability and other identity markers. The festival will feature prominent educational leaders, thinkers, parents, and students who have engaged on these topics and will bring panel discussions, interviews, film screenings, and cultural events. You can register as a participant here.

In the run-up to this festival, Belongg interviewed global and Indian researchers and experts focused on making schools more inclusive and in partnership with The Wire is featuring edited and condensed versions of these interviews in this series.

In the second interview in this series, Belongg speaks to Mahima Bhalla, a learning support teacher at the American Embassy School, New Delhi, about the difference between the two approaches and how inclusive schools can be made sustainable for all stakeholders. Read the first interview with Nafisa Baboo here.

As a learning support teacher, Bhalla primarily works with students with developmental disabilities, especially learning disabilities. Other than managing an Instagram blog to disseminate information on inclusive education, she also conducts workshops with teachers and students on the theme.

On what she has learned across her journey as an educator

One thing that I realised early on was that I absolutely love working with children. I really enjoy that work. It gives me immense happiness and satisfaction to see when my students learn and grow. For me, that’s the biggest value of being in the education sector. A major learning that has driven me towards the work that I do today is that we’re still really far from being truly inclusive. We’ve been talking about inclusive education for a really long. But as soon as I entered special education, I realised that special education has existed, and is doing really well in many places, but inclusive education is not happening. We still have a long, long way to go.

So, to summarise, I would say that all my work has sort of driven me to understand where we are now and where we should be in terms of inclusive education and all the work that needs to get done to get there.

Also read: Interview | Nafisa Baboo on Making Our Educational Spaces Disability-Inclusive

On the lack of inclusion within contemporary school settings 

Ever since my first job, I’ve really enjoyed working with my students. My workplace was a well-resourced school. In line with that, there was a special education department that was well set up. There was support for kids with disabilities. Despite that, I gradually started realising that the needs of children were neglected or overlooked within the classroom, because our curricula have always been designed to be more one-size-fits-all. As much as we’re trying to move away from that, it’s still designed for the majority in mind, and somehow that overlooks our students who learn differently.

Over the months, I started realising this gap in inclusion, and also better understanding the difference between integration and inclusion. I couldn’t witness much change in classroom teaching and learning. That’s when I realised that there is a major gap here. And we need to figure out a solution to meet the needs of all the learners in the classroom.

On the goals she has in mind for her work 

A very broad goal would be that all students are happy in school. All our learners are happy and able to learn, grow and meet their potential in school.

But if I have to define it more specifically, I would say that a big goal for my work is to design classrooms that are more inclusive, more accessible and more supportive of students with disabilities.

On her definition of inclusive education

By definition, inclusive education is educating students with disabilities, alongside their non-disabled peers, in the same classroom. Inclusive education looks like having systems that are equipped to not only include all the learners in the school but also make sure they are supported, make sure that they have access to the content and the curriculum, and their needs are being met in the classroom. It is also important that we push them just as much as the other students to reach their potential.

Simply put, my idea of inclusive education is a space where anyone and everyone is welcome.

On how she has been promoting inclusive practices through her work

Almost all of my work is centered around promoting inclusive practices. My job as a special education teacher is to first and foremost support those students and their families in becoming more independent, developing self-awareness, having self-advocacy skills and being able to communicate one’s own needs. I also have to be able to make sure that they have the skills that are needed to access the content and the curriculum.

That’s one big part of it. Other than that, another major part of my work is to support teachers. It is crucial to support teachers in understanding the needs of diverse learners, being able to accordingly tweak our curricula to include all learners, to provide more choice in the classroom and to be more flexible about the way we teach and assess.

On the biggest challenges, she has faced within the inherently discriminatory system

I think the biggest challenge I’ve observed is narrow mindsets, because any change has to begin with a change in mindset. In my short career so far, I have come across many teachers, some parents, even some administrators, who are not on board with the idea of including students with disabilities. They don’t feel comfortable working with students with disabilities, and believe that they lack the equipment to do so. This rigidity and stubbornness to work only with a certain kind of student population pose a great challenge to inclusive education.

Another issue is the lack of awareness, sensitisation, and training. We don’t know who the diverse learners are in our classroom or understand their needs. There is also very little willingness to learn or look at the student’s perspective. Ultimately, my main struggle is with facilitating the crucial shift from ‘there is a problem in the child’ to  ‘there is a problem in the environment or in my teaching’, which is key to inclusive education. It’s easier to blame the child, the parent, or sometimes even the system. We have got to keep encouraging ourselves to make that internal shift, to not think of it as a problem with the child, and think of how we can do better. Of course, structural challenges like a lack of resources and infrastructure are very widespread as well.

On the steps towards creating an inclusive school

I would say that the very first step is having a shared vision. Even before you move on to awareness and sensitisation, I think you need to have a common vision, especially within the leadership. If the leaders of a school believe in inclusive education, decide to admit anyone and everyone and provide teachers with the right resources — further hiring will subsequently be inclusive, right?

Step one to build an inclusive school is having a vision of the school as a space that will cater to all learners. If that exists, you accordingly hire people who believe in inclusion and invest in relevant professional development and training. We also need more awareness and sensitisation in our teacher education programs, definitely.

Representative image. Photo: LCCR/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

On positive changes in the field

Due to newer policies, I see more and more schools having a special education setup on the ground level. More schools are including students with disabilities and training teachers in this space. All of those are positive, larger-level changes. But even at a more everyday, minute-level, I love that I’m working with teachers who tweak an assignment or a lesson to provide more choice, or redesign an assignment for a certain kid, and then realise it can work for all of their students. That’s when I feel like my goal has been met, because when you realise that what works for students with disabilities, works for all, that’s where you’ve hit inclusive education.

I’m a believer in universal design for learning. It’s just a core framework for implementing inclusive education and providing more flexibility in the classroom. The principle behind that is that the moment you start providing choice, and start building more support into your lesson, keeping students with disabilities in mind, you’re anyway making it accessible for all.

Also read: More Than One in Four Children With Disabilities Don’t Go to School: Report

On the importance of disability-inclusive education

Inclusive education, to my understanding, is specifically for students with disabilities. It’s because they have been ignored for the longest time, segregated, and sent to special schools. Essentially, they have not been considered worthy of being in a mainstream school. On the other hand, inclusion has become a very broad, loose term. When we use terms like that and say that we include everyone, it’s easy to miss out on students with disabilities.

Then, my focus shifts from inclusivity of gender, of race, of culture, of language, of everything beyond disability. Yes, we need to include all these sections, but by making the term “inclusivity” so broad, we tend to overlook students with disabilities. We say, “humara school inclusive hai/ we are inclusive. We work on all aspects of inclusion.” And honestly, you possibly can’t. It is hard. It’s hard to pay attention to all those aspects at the same time. My only issue with loosely using the term “inclusion” is that you are then ignoring students with disabilities, because they have historically been the most vulnerable population. And so, when I talk about inclusive education, I’m referring to a definition which talks about including students with disabilities.

On other forms of inclusion within education:

Gender inclusion is something that we don’t talk about enough in India. Gradually, yes I’m seeing some change. I’m seeing more conversations around LGBTQIA+ inclusion, but that’s still. It’s still very surface-level, right? I’m not part of those, too many questions. In my school, those conversations happen. But also, my school is not the norm. I work with an international, privileged school which is more of an exception than the norm, right? So, maybe these conversations are happening in certain, private elite schools, but are they happening in the majority of Indian schools and government schools? Probably not. Chances are less.

Similarly, I feel I don’t know if we talk enough about cultural inclusion, given we live in such a diverse country, and all major cities have very many diverse populations, with diverse ethnicities, religions and cultures. At most, we celebrate different festivals, but are those differences reflected in our curriculum? Are we utilising those differences in the classroom, for the benefit of all?

On the role of parents in inclusive education:

Parents are a big part of ensuring that schools become more inclusive, and I don’t mean just the parents of kids with disabilities, but all parents. They are the ones who make decisions about which school a child is sent to, who they make friends with and what kind of skills they focus on. So, I think if parents also realise the importance of inclusive education and why we should send our kids to inclusive schools instead of schools that are only for a certain kind of population, that will create significant change. Parents can also play a big role in demanding inclusion by holding schools accountable to provisions made by public policies for inclusion.

Hence, orientation of parents is extremely important to tackle rigid and regressive mindsets, where they believe that non-disabled kids and disabled kids should not interact in school settings.

On co-teaching practices and collaboration within the educator community

Something that my school has been pushing for, and I know has come up in many schools around the world, is the practice of co-teaching. It is very important and intriguing to see how special ed teachers can work with mainstream teachers in the same classroom. When teachers work together, it’s easier to design curricula and techniques for all learners because we benefit from each other’s expertise.

On her message to inclusive educators

I would say keep standing up for your students. Our students form the heart and soul of the work that we do. They’re our number one priority. We need to keep standing up for them, keep advocating for them, because they aren’t always able to advocate for themselves. Someone needs to always be on their side.

I actually tell my students this whenever they’re afraid of talking to a teacher, or calling out some injustice that happened. I first tell them, “Listen, I’m on your team.” I think they need to know that there’s someone who understands their perspective and tries to empathise with them, because it’s easy for students with disabilities or those who learn differently to feel like they don’t belong or that nobody will understand their point of view.