Shakeera Begum from Mangammana Palya in Bangalore is a housewife. Her husband works as a daily wage labourer but spends all his money on alcohol. Shakira struggles to make the ends meet. The problem is further complicated by the fact that her three children Imran, Ayesha and Shiekh Salman are hearing impaired. She had a tough time getting them admitted into school. "I could not afford special schools and no other school was willing to admit them. I had given up hopes of ever educating my children. I didn't think they had a future," she says. That was four years ago. Now all her children study in the government school in Bommanahalli area, at the southern end of Bangalore.

The Bommanahalli government school is a typical school. The teachers there were not equipped to teach children with special needs. So the children were unable to cope with the curriculum and faired badly. Shakira's youngest son Salman soon lost interest in classes and made up excuses to skip school. This was the plight of seven other children with disabilities in the school. Munihanumaiah, the Head Master of the school says, "We could not refuse admission to these children but at the same time, were not able to give the individual attention they need. In a class of 50, one or two children with hearing or visual impairment or even mild mental retardation get lost. They attend classes but gain very little."

All this changed when government-funded and NGO-run Integrated Resource Teacher (IRT), Manjulamma came into the picture. Manjulamma was specially trained to handle children with special needs. She spent time with the students with disabilities and helped them learn concepts that they were unable to cope in the regular classes. Her presence has made Salman come back to school. Manjulamma is one of several IRTs that the government is funding as part of Integrated Education for the Disabled Children (IEDC) Programme. This programme is entirely run by the NGOs. Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled in Bangalore is one such organisation. As part of IEDC programme the trust has 21 teachers covering 356 students across 73 schools.

IEDC was first implemented in 1950s as an experiment by the Union Ministry of Education. Following the success of the programme the Planning Commission included it in 1971. However the programme was not launched on a large scale till 1987. The reasoning behind the integrated Education system was that the special schools for children with disabilities were segregating children from the society. Also the reach of such schools was limited to urban population and was expensive. The aim of IEDC is:

• to provide educational opportunities to CWSN (Children With Special Needs) in regular schools
• to facilitate their retention in the school system, and
• to place children from special schools in common schools.

In 1987 the Ministry of Human Resources Development, along with UNICEF launched another experiment: Project Integrated Education for the Disabled (PIED). In this approach, Project areas are identified and all the schools in the area are expected to enroll children with disabilities. Training was provided to teachers for this purpose. This project was implemented in one administrative block each in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Mizoram, Delhi Municipal Corporation, and Baroda Municipal Corporation. Karnataka was included at a later stage.

Manjulamma's presence made Salman come back to school. She is one of the special educators that the government is funding as part of Integrated Education for the Disabled Children (IEDC) Programme.

 •  Included by law, little else
 •  Living in a gray zone

It was observed that this approach created a positive paradigm shift in teachers, non-disabled children and the community as a whole. But the programme was not without problems. The programme depended heavily on NGOs for smooth running. Each teacher is allocated at least three schools, not necessarily in the same area. This meant that teachers spent a lot of time in commuting between the schools and spent very little time with the students. And then there is the problem of infrastructure. Manjulamma says, "I have to conduct classes here in the corridor on most days I don't have access to a black board. There is a shortage of classrooms to run regular classes so I can't even demand a separate class for these children."

The number of IRTs are also woefully lesser than what is required to teach students with disability. In some schools, government teachers themselves are handling the children but they have undergone training for only 42 days as compared to the year-long course IRTs have to undergo, which means that their ability to teach children with special needs is questionable.

Despite these hiccups, today in Karnataka alone, more than 10,000 students with disabilities are enjoying the benefits of IEDC. But Indumathi Rao, Regional Coordinator, Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Network (South Asia), argues that it is just about two per cent of the total number of disabled children. She also worries that this programme is creating new labels, because the children are now called 'IEDs' instead of disabled and that the programme is doing very little to integrate them in to the mainstream. "The children are pulled out of their regular classes for sessions with the IRTs. It is turning out to be another way of discriminating them. We need to move towards 'inclusive education' where the curriculum is redesigned to suit the children's needs and stop seeing any child as a problem," says Rao.

Although the seeds of 'inclusive education' are sown, in a society where the disabled have very little opportunity to be integrated, the task is going to be tough. Mangala Nagarakatte, Head Mistress of Sajjan Rao Vidya Samsthe in Bangalore, one of the schools where IEDC programme is run reasserts this. "With this programme children may be integrated into the education system but what happens once they are out?" she asks. Nagarakatte says there is no support system to attend to their special needs and no guarantee that they can earn their living and lead a life of dignity. "There is a lack of understanding on this issue and this makes the IED programme pointless," says Nagarakatte.

A point Indumathi Rao agrees with. "There is a need for a holistic approach on this issue. We need to change the education system to make it accessible to all children and prepare the society – the parents, friends and employers to provide support to the disabled children," she says. The census statistics as on 2001, shows that India has about 2.19 crore people with disabilities and only 49 per cent of them are literate; of which only 34 per cent are employed. One hopes that the transition from 'integrated education' to 'inclusive education' and 'inclusive society' will change these statistics sooner rather than later. (The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi)