A young boy had a reading disability apart from several other learning challenges. Every time he refused to read, his teachers would call him a 'brat' and insist that he was being stubborn. They were not willing to offer him the education he needed.

Neesha John, a former teacher in the school recalls how the boy's class teacher would have such detrimental conversations with the boy, that it shattered his sense of self-worth. "Even when it was taken to the management level, it was never resolved in the right way. There are a lot of children like him who fall through the cracks.

"It's long overdue that educational institutions have special educators and counsellors. It needs to be made mandatory. The needs of the children are growing. There is an influx of kids whose needs are not being met at home, and they come to school with hope. If their needs are not being met at school as well, we are doing a huge disservice to our children," she said.

Lakshmi Satish, co-founder of Mirra, an organisation that works with schools to enable inclusion and establish systems which address special education needs said, "all schools without exception have children with diverse needs. Many times, these needs are the outcome of developmental delays.

"Special educators are trained with strategies to address these delays. Ideally, the special educator supports the teacher in helping all children in the school have access to learning. They help identify the needs, come up with a plan, differentiate the curriculum, work with the parent to understand what could be done at home so that progress is faster at school and interact with the management level to enable policy decisions that would help children with special needs."

Earlier this month, a Class 10 student in Delhi named Shivam Singh approached the High Court seeking direction to the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to provide him with a special educator. Shivam has a 50 percent learning disability, which makes it difficult for him to grasp what is being taught in the classroom.

According to the plea filed, Shivam had been asking the school authorities to help by providing a special educator since 2019, but all his attempts were in vain. On October 15, the High Court bench directed the NDMC to immediately file its response and work towards the appointment of a special educator. The case is due for the next hearing on November 4.

Advocates appearing on behalf of Shivam also argued that the inaction of the NDMC was a violation of the fundamental right to education of the petitioner as guaranteed to him under Articles 14, 21 and 21-A of the Constitution of India, along with the provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 and Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.

One of the advocates Ashok Aggarwal said, "Article 14 - Right to Equality and Article 21 and 21 A - right to education are the constitutional provisions in terms of which every child including children with disability has a legal and constitutional right to education. The Right to Education Act 2009 also mandates that all children with disabilities should have the right to have education in mainstream schools.

"The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act also deals with the education of disabled persons and particularly disabled children and mandates that all facilities for their education in mainstream schools have to be provided, which includes special educators.

Education is the basic birth right of every child and therefore, we can say that every child with disability has a right to education in mainstream schools.

"Moreover, to provide such children a level-playing field, they are additionally entitled to all sorts of facilities like barrier-free environment, hearing aids and other support material for education.

"Before 2009, people did not prefer to take up courses in special education. But in 2009, the Delhi government and the municipal corporation, framed recruitment rules which made it mandatory to have the post of special educators, and ensured that special educators should not be paid less than what is paid to normal teachers. Following this, several institutes for teaching special educator courses were opened. In my opinion, each school must have at least two special educators.

"The right to education act and the right of persons with disabilities act do not say how many special educators should be available in each school. But the Delhi High Court in its decision in 2009 and 2012 have issued directives for the recruitment of at least two special educators in each school for the education of children with disabilities.

"Recently, the Supreme Court in a decision directed the central government to clarify and amend the needed ratio of special educators and students. It is important to note that the right to education act mandates that all children with disabilities will have the same rights to education as other children and should be in mainstream school education.

"So there's no doubt that all disabled children have the right to be in mainstream schools according to the constitution. But the sad truth is that less than one percent of the total strength of children with disabilities are in mainstream schools.

"It is also noted that schools do not have facilities for the children with disabilities. Moreover, the attitude of the teachers' schools is discouraging and they try to avoid providing admission to such children, whether it is a government school or a private school. They are not given proper care and attention."

There is a large-scale drop out rate among them and it discourages children with disabilities to join mainstream schools. Even private schools who charge exorbitant fees don't have special educators and they also try their best to avoid giving admission to children with disabilities. "This is really very unfortunate and the government should show keen interest in the education of children with disabilities," said the lawyer.

There have been several other pleas in the past which led to strong legislations within the Right to Education Act and Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. But even today, only about 52 per cent of people with disabilities aged seven and above are literate. In 2019, a UNESCO report revealed shocking findings that only 0.22 percent of teachers across the country have special education training.

All schools, both government and private, can only appoint special educators who are registered with the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). But currently, there are only about one lakh special educators registered with the RCI, which is only about 10 percent of the required minimum. Moreover, each state has at least 50,000 schools and it is impossible for each school to appoint an RCI registered special educator.

The reason for this huge dearth is the lack of trained professionals who also have the heart to work with children with disabilities. Moreover, most special education courses train people to deal with one particular disability. But in a school or village block, one might find children with several different types of disabilities and it is not practical to employ different special educators for each disability. There is a need for training of special educators to be able to deal with a wide spectrum of disabilities.

In 2021, the Supreme Court while hearing petitions on the qualification of special educators directed the states to adhere to a stop-gap arrangement until the central government issues separate Pupil Teacher Ratios (PTR) for Children with Disabilities.

According to the arrangement, states were asked to maintain a PTR of 1:8 for children with Cerebral Palsy, Visual impairment and hearing impairment, 1:5 for children with intellectual disability, ASD and Specific learning disabilities; and 1:2 for Deaf and Blind children and a combination of two or more of the seven disabilities mentioned above. The court also directed compulsory training and sensitisation of staff in all schools to the needs of Children with Disabilities.

Apart from the awareness about special education, other reasons for such a huge dearth of special educators is the comparatively low salaries and the contractual nature of the job. There are several challenges that special educators in the country face that discourage people from stepping into the profession. Due to the shortage, special educators are often overworked. In the government sectors, sometimes there is one special educator for several schools.

According to some reports, there were also several discrepancies in the Rehabilitation Council of India's registry for special educators. There have been several complaints by parents that many of these certified special educators are not really qualified to teach children with special needs and allege 'corruption' in the certification process.

According to the RCI regulations, special educators need to get their registration renewed every five years for which they need 100 Continuing Rehabilitation Education points. The reason is that many of these educators got their degrees decades ago, and over the years, their understanding and knowledge have changed. Hence, new methods, techniques and teaching styles are being made available.

Another challenge is that there is no clear legislation on the right of children with disabilities to have access to special educators. While the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 states that educational institutes should "provide reasonable accommodation according to the individual's requirements and provide necessary support, individualised or otherwise, in environments that maximise academic and social development consistent with the goal of full inclusion", the terms 'reasonable accommodation', 'individualised support' and 'full inclusion' haven't been elaborated and therefore hasn't been implemented properly.

What Role Does A Special Educator Play?

Lakshmi Satish explains, "From pre-primary to higher secondary, when a child is flagged as having special needs, we observe the environment to understand why certain behaviours present themselves, and draw out an Individualised Education Plan (IEP). We draw out academic, social and emotional goals for the child.

"The focus is on where the child is now and how to move to the next level. We also keep in mind that the child may be at a particular grade level, but at the performance level, he or she may be two or three grades below. So we also look at bridging the gap.

"There are different courses, some are specific for certain disabilities like autism or dyslexia. But special educators learn and understand the course of development in humans, the importance of communication, how the brain works, when there is a trauma in which parts of the brain are affected, what activities can be used to stimulate other parts of the brain.

"There is a whole range of training. But a comprehensive course would train a teacher to work with any child with special needs. All teachers would benefit from the strategies that a special educator uses.

"In MANY schools, the right to education of children with disabilities is not recognised. Many blame it on inadequate infrastructure, but if the school really wants to make education accessible for all, they will find a way somehow. It starts with wanting to provide education for a child with disability."

Neesha John added, "education has never been a one-size-fits-all system. I don't think there has ever been a time in the history of education where one particular methodology worked for everyone. If you look at the number of methodologies that have come over the centuries and how it appeals to different segments of children, there's more than enough proof that there's a requirement to customise education to facilitate learning.

"That's where special educators come in because the knowledge and exposure that a special educator comes with, provides opportunities for dialogue about what kind of alternate teaching styles can be incorporated in the classroom. One of the biggest benefits of being a special educator is that before we are even asked to think about the academics, we are asked to think about how a child learns.

"Given the kind of changes within society today and the level of exposure that children have, not all of the information they are exposed to are having a positive impact on them. So the needs of the children have been growing exponentially over the last decade. So it's important to understand the needs and limitations of a child and for that, a special educator, without a doubt needs to be a part of every educational institution.

"A special educator bridges the gap between the child, teacher and parents. A special educator can gauge how effective certain strategies and methodologies are, what's working, what's not, what classroom accommodations need to be offered to the child.

"There are children who are flagged for challenges in their academics. A special educator observes the child in the classroom environment to be able to identify where the cracks are. There are one-to-one sessions to get a better understanding as to the skill levels of the child - reading, writing, spelling, maths and concept understanding.

"Typically, special educators work with all subjects, but the approach is from a skill perspective. I am a firm believer that if an individual chooses to become an educator, the training needs to begin with special education because you are trained to look at the child's strengths.

"Even children who don't fall under the category of special needs learn differently. So to be able to be empathetic to the needs of the child is important. A special educator keeps in mind the needs and limitations of the child, the family and the school."

Neesha adds that while there are enough courses in special education and opportunities to work with the organisations that provide these courses, one of the challenges is that there is not enough dialogue about the need for special educators.

She recalled her experiences too, "the first child with special needs that I worked with was a seven-year-old boy with an attention deficit (AD). My biggest takeaway from that experience was to be patient. This child had an attention span of just about three minutes, and had to get up and move around regularly.

"There was another girl in class one, who was not reading at all. Using a lot of strategies, we made reading exciting for her and over a period of one year, she was able to become an independent reader. Very often, children who have reading disabilities, there is a dislike for reading because it is so challenging. So what really worked was helping this child look forward to reading and view it differently."

Lakshmi Satish added, "There are far too many children in this country who need the services of special educators. To have access to learning is to have access to life, so we need to encourage more people to become special educators."