It is early morning. The bell has just tolled and students of St Mary’s School in Dwarka, New Delhi, are rushing in through the main gate. Among these, some students are happily running past others and some are walking at a brisk pace. But the sight that stays with you is that of students with ‘special needs’, some of whom are in wheelchairs, being escorted in by other students.
“Our physically-challenged students on wheelchairs are lovingly helped by their classmates,” says Seema Bali, vice-principal, St Mary’s School, Sector 19, Dwarka. “It is considered a privilege to be chosen to bring in these students from the school gate to the classrooms.”
Each morning, students are positioned at the gate with wheelchairs, awaiting the arrival of special needs students, to help them manoeuvre the school corridors. They are part of a ‘peer group’ for special needs children and are rewarded for their efforts — at the end of a school session — through the distribution of certificates and the Good Samaritan Award.
It is steps like these — part of the school’s ‘Aasman’ inclusion initiative — that have helped set it apart.
“It has been our endeavour to ensure that students with special needs get as many opportunities as they need to make their lives easier,” says Sheelu Mathew, principal, St Mary’s School. “They have many challenges to surmount and we feel if we can, in any way, give them what is their right, we should. Very few institutions are able to do this and since this cause is close to our hearts, we want to give it our absolute best.”
Currently, 31 special needs students are enrolled at the school. About 65 others are part of its open school in Bamnoli village in Sector 28, Dwarka.
An array of diagnoses comes under the umbrella term ‘special needs’. So, children with special needs may have mild learning disabilities or profound cognitive impairment. From food allergies to terminal illness, developmental delays that accelerate quickly or remain entrenched, occasional panic attacks and serious psychiatric problems — all of it comes under special needs.
Schools, the arena where the major part of a young person’s life is spent, thus have the most crucial role to play in their lives. In this particular school, while students with special needs study in regular classrooms, necessary support is provided to help them cope with academics.
“We have two kinds of special needs students — one, where the parents have identified their special needs and two, where we help the parents identify these needs,” says Anuradha Gupta, special educator.
While medical conditions such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy are easy to identify, learning and developmental issues such as autism and dyslexia are harder to pin down.
“For this purpose, special needs students are put through medical and educational assessment, after which we design their learning opportunities accordingly,” adds Gupta.
The ‘Aasman’ resource room caters to the extra help needed for special needs students, where special educators, in coordination with mainstream teachers, either revise work that has been done in class previously or teach them a concept beforehand.
Included in the initiative are measures such as orientation sessions, workshops and vocational training.
“Several schools want to include special needs students in the mainstream but may be limited by lack of infrastructure and special educators,” reasons Bali. “We have taken care to provide our students with motorised wheelchairs and built special ramps for the wheelchairs. All this is part of our effort to walk the talk on inclusion of special needs students into the mainstream.”
One Term, Many Definitions
The term ‘special needs’ is useful for getting necessary services, setting appropriate goals and gaining understanding for a child and his or her family. ‘Special needs’ are commonly defined by what a child can’t do — by milestones unmet, foods banned, activities avoided and experiences denied. These minuses hit families hard, and may make ‘special needs’ seem like a tragic designation. Some parents will always mourn their child’s lost potential but other families may find that their child’s challenges make triumphs sweeter
Pick any two families of children with special needs and they may seem to have little in common. A family dealing with their child’s developmental delays will have different concerns than one dealing with chronic illness
Medical issues for children include serious conditions such as cancer and heart defects, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes, congenital conditions such as cerebral palsy and dwarfism and serious health threats such as food allergies and obesity
Children with behavioural issues don’t respond to traditional discipline. With diagnoses like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dysfunction of Sensory Integration and Tourette Syndrome, they require specialised strategies that are tailored to their specific abilities and disabilities
Developmental disabilities are some of the most devastating for a family to deal with. Diagnoses such as autism, Down Syndrome and intellectual disabilities often cause children to be removed from the mainstream. Parents must be fierce advocates to make sure their children receive the services, therapy, schooling and inclusion they need and deserve
Children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia struggle with schoolwork regardless of their intellectual abilities. They require specialised learning strategies to meet their potential and avoid self-esteem problems and behavioural difficulties
Mental Health Issues
A child’s problems with anxiety or depression can sneak up on parents. Parents have to find the right professionals to help make hard decisions about therapy, medications and hospitalisation. The consequences of missed clues and wrong guesses can be significant
Although every special needs child is different and every family is unique, there are some common concerns that link parents of challenged kids. These include getting appropriate care and accommodation, promoting acceptance in the extended family, school and community and adjusting routines and expectations