Revisiting core assumptions about inclusive education in India

Kanwal Singh and Ruchi Singh

EENET often indicates that everyone understands and interprets inclusive education in different ways. An important step in developing inclusive schools and education systems is therefore for practitioners and policy-makers to reflect critically on their own beliefs and assumptions. In this article, Kanwal and Ruchi reflect on the tensions between special and inclusive education in India, and on changes made to their own assumptions about inclusive education; a process which has led to their more successful implementation of inclusive education.

A decade ago, inclusive education in India was a favourite topic of discussion among special educators. It began as an approach targeted specifically at children with disabilities. The purpose was to move children from segregated schools to regular ones, while providing adequate support and resources in the latter. It seemed an exciting venture - we learned a new set of vocabulary and felt good about making a difference!

There was no doubt in our minds about the benefit of inclusive education. However, as we prepared to move from the 'why' of inclusion to the 'how', we had nagging doubts. A number of questions tormented us: Were regular schools ready? They were not accessible; possessed no aids and assistive devices. Were teachers prepared? How would they manage 'our' children in a class of 50 students? Would children be able to cope with the rigid examination system? Who would be responsible for therapy, individual sessions and daily needs? Wouldn't other students make fun of 'our' children?

Animated debates within the special education community took place. Many special educators were sceptical and warned of repercussions. Arduous sessions were organised to convince them that it was going to be an ongoing process with long-term benefits, and that they needed to be more 'flexible' and 'change' with the times.

Ten years down the road we seem to be stuck in a time capsule; India still construes inclusive education as restricted to children with disabilities. There is little agreement among 'disability specialists' on strategies and practices to translate inclusive theory into reality. There is a disconnect between theory (which is based on a social and rights model) and current practice (which is dictated by the medical model of diagnosis, assessment and programming). Schools that pride themselves as pioneers in inclusive education have in reality set up special schools (called resource centres) within regular schools. Some in the special education community feel disoriented because of ambiguous roles and responsibilities. Perplexed regular school teachers and apprehensive parents add to the commotion.

As members of the special education community, what bothered us predominantly was that, although well-intentioned, the policies and practices advocated by the special education community in the last few years had done little to facilitate inclusive education. On the contrary, they had been instrumental in introducing and reinforcing exclusionary policies and practices within regular schools.

Four years ago an exciting task of setting up an inclusive primary school for an Indian not- for-profit organisation came along. This was a perfect opportunity to design and establish a school system that followed 'true' inclusion through an honest unison of theory and practice. We're not going to tell the story of that school here, but instead, will share the thought processes that went into developing the school.

We began by studying existing models of inclusive schools and identified the gaps between theory and practice. Soon we realised that we were challenging the commonly held beliefs and assumptions underlying the foundation of inclusive education in India. This exercise resulted in a new set of assumptions that subsequently defined our framework for inclusion, as summarised below:

Commonly held assumptions Revised assumptions
Inclusion is only about children with disabilities Inclusion is not restricted to children with disabilities. It encompasses all children; addressing exclusion in all forms to enable meaningful and quality education for all
All children with disabilities need special education. All children with disabilities do not need special education. Being disabled does not automatically imply a need for special education.
Only children with disabilities are 'special'. Children without disabilities do not require special attention or support. All children are 'special'. Any student could face barriers in education and require support/special attention at a given time; temporary or permanent.
Disability-specific NGOs have the expertise to lead inclusive policies and practice. Other stakeholders also have equally valuable experience and expertise. Disability-specific NGOs are important members of the team that should formulate inclusive policies and practice.
Regular schools in their existing condition are ideal learning grounds. Regular schools require major restructuring and reorganising to transform into ideal learning grounds.
Special educators are inclusion experts who can guide regular school teachers. There are no outright experts in inclusive education. It requires the skills of both special and regular teachers - a 'middle path' that imbibes the strengths of both special and general education systems along with new ideas to improve quality education for all.
The primary responsibility of implementing inclusive education lies with the regular school teachers. Teachers can implement inclusive practices only if all stakeholders fulfil their share of responsibilities.
Diagnosis and labelling students as having 'special educational needs' (SEN) facilitates their inclusion in school. Diagnosis, labelling and following individual programme plans not only facilitates exclusion but limits curricular expectations.
India could duplicate the inclusive education framework designed by countries of the North. The inclusive education framework needs to be specifically designed for the Indian context.
Inclusion has been unsuccessful in some countries of the North and so the same will happen in India. India has examples of successful indigenous and effective inclusive practices that countries of the North can learn from. Failure in other countries does not mean inclusion will not work in India.
Inclusive education policies and laws will inherently translate into changes within the education system. The minimal political, economic and social will to translate inclusive education into reality should not dampen our belief or efforts.

Conclusion: The process of redefining inclusive education and developing a more applicable approach to the Indian context has taken time. In doing so, however, we have challenged commonly held beliefs and developed a new set of core assumptions. Although not addressed here, this renewed appreciation of an Indian framework for inclusive education has resulted in a valuable repertoire of innovative practices, learning and recommendations that are being shared with the local education community. Our success has reaffirmed our commitment to continue working towards inclusive education through innovatively designed models, which we would be happy to share if you contact us directly. The revised core assumptions may be a little uncomfortable for the special education community, as the implementation of the resulting framework requires radical changes in thinking as well as action. It asks the community to review, even give up, many of their core practices. However, the revised roles and new direction, for many of us working in our chosen field of special education, are exciting and effective in improving quality education for all students.

Kanwal Singh has been working in the education field for the last 25 years and can be contacted at . Ruchi Singh is a developmental professional currently designing inclusive curriculum and learning environments. She can be contacted at


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