For the first 14 years of his life, Javed Shaikhs world was confined to the four walls of his house in Kala Tanki slum in Sewri, South Mumbai. Javed was born with multiple disabilities: He has cerebral palsy with little control over his lower limbs, hearing impairment, and a squint. He spent his days either in bed or watching TV. He could not speak and insisted on eating only Kurkure, a packaged snack.
Today, after therapy and four years in a regular school, Javed is a new person. He doesn't like missing school and has friends. He can eat and dress on his own, can operate his mobile phone, can lip-read, and can even says a few words. He points at his school bag and prods his mother, Samsunisa Shaikh, if they are getting late. "I had never imagined that Javed would one day go to school," Samsunisa told IndiaSpend.
The credit for this turnaround goes in large part to Sunil Bhadane, a special educator, and to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) -- which aims to provide quality education to every child aged 6-14 years -- which Bhadane works for. He had spotted Javed near his house in Sewri one day, crawling on all fours, and had followed him home.
Javed's story reveals the possibilities of bringing education to children with special needs, 28.2 per cent of whom are out of school, compared to 2.9 per cent of all children who are out of school.
The Rs 300 a day that Javed's father made from working as a porter at the Sewri fish market was hardly enough to feed a family of five, leaving nothing for Javed's treatment or therapy. Without adequate treatment and nutrition, Javed looked like a child of six, though he was 14 years old.
Bhadane convinced Javed's grandmother, as the head of the family, to bring him to a health camp for children with special needs at the Jagannath Bhatankar Municipal Corporation School in nearby Parel.
There, an orthopaedic specialist examined Javed and recommended a hearing aid and leg braces, which are provided free of cost under SSA. A few days later, Bhadane visited Javed's home again and convinced his grandmother to send him to the "school readiness" classes held at the same school premises in Parel.
That was the first time Javed stepped inside a classroom. This was a class to prepare children with special needs for school. It was here that Javed learned to first sit erect, to eat foods other than Kurkure, and to use the toilet by himself. He was given a hearing aid, sets of school uniform and a school bag, and was formally admitted in Prabodhankar Thackeray Municipal School in Sewri.
The SSA follows an inclusive education model: Children with special needs study in regular classrooms, irrespective of the kind, category and degree of disability, although it does provide for home-based education for severely-disabled children. Since 2012, when the Right to Education Act of 2009 was amended to provide free and compulsory inclusive education for children with special needs, there has been a steady increase in their enrolment in school.
In 2003-04, 1.7 million special-needs children were enrolled in school; in 2014-15, the figure had increased to 2.5 million, an increase of 47 per cent over 11 years. Nevertheless, 28.2 per cent of children with special needs remain out of school, according to a 2014 National Sample Survey of Estimation of Out-of-School Children between six and 13 years.
Bhadane is one of 42 special educators who look after over 16,000 children with special needs in Mumbai -- one per 400 children. Their job is not to teach but to track children with special needs and guide their teachers. They ensure, for instance, that children with more severe conditions such as multiple disabilities, mental retardation and cerebral palsy get more individualised attention.
Hired on contract, Bhadane earns Rs 20,000 per month -- based on an allowance per child -- and works six days a week.
"Parents are often in denial about the condition of their child. We have to convince and counsel them to send the child to school," Bhadane told IndiaSpend.
In November 2016, when IndiaSpend visited 18-year-old Javed, in school, he sat on the front bench in a Grade IV classroom of the Marathi-medium Prabodhankar Thackeray Municipal School. His class teacher, Charulata Patil, was teaching general knowledge. Javed was writing alphabets in his notebook, and would smile when she called to him.
"He has improved so much over the years, whenever you call him, he has a smile on his face," Patil said. She and most teachers in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) schools have attended workshops that sensitise teachers to the different needs of each disability group, training them in using appropriate teaching techniques. "We don't expect these children to excel academically as much as we want them to enjoy the school experience and come to school daily," Paraji Khemnar, headmaster of the school, said.
When children with special needs study with children without disabilities, they show higher levels of social interaction and communication, besides gaining academically. Studies have also shown that inclusive classrooms do not compromise on a regular student's education; in fact, children make greater gains in math and reading in inclusive classrooms. And children exposed to inclusion in early childhood are more understanding towards the differently abled.
It is not always easy to get children with special needs admitted in regular BMC schools. In 2006, when Deepak Khedekar brought his hearing-impaired son Sahil to Prabodhankar Thackeray School, the then headmaster refused to admit him. Khedekar tried another BMC school, Baradevi Municipal School in Sewri, where Sahil was accepted.
SSA special educators then contacted him and facilitated surgeries for Sahil's eyes and also helped him get a hearing aid. Today, Sahil is in Grade VIII and doing well. He loves cricket, and can speak clearly enough for those close to him to comprehend. "There has been 100 per cent improvement in Sahil," Khedekar said. "He considers himself a regular kid."
Notwithstanding the SSA's success in Mumbai, the number of children with special needs in government schools goes down after Grade IV. Yet, their number in private and unaided schools goes up after Grade IV.
"Many private and unaided schools do not admit children with special needs when they are young, but they are open to admitting them when the child has already been initiated into going to school elsewhere," said Kiran Belge, District Coordinator for Inclusive Education, SSA. "Also, parents who have migrated into Mumbai become financially better off after a few years in the city and can afford private school education later," he added.
Even without teaching duties, special educators have more work than they can handle. Bhadane and two other special educators take care of all 118 schools in Parel division. "We are able to visit some schools only after a gap of three-to-six months," special educator Vaishali Haake, Bhadan''s colleague, said.
Sometimes, the outcomes are suboptimal for reasons beyond the reach of the SSA. Three weeks after IndiaSpend met Javed, he and his family had to move to Mumbra, 38 km north in Thane district, because their slum in Sewri had been demolished. Javed no longer goes to school. "I cannot carry Javed in the train to take him to Sewri, and I don't know if the schools here will admit him," Samsunisa said.
Bhadane said families' migration is a common problem as slums are frequently demolished to make way for high-rises, and slum dwellers end up moving farther away into the suburbs. He says he had aimed for Javed to pass Grade X, and then open a small shop and become self-reliant.
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform, with whom Swagata Yadavar is principal correspondent. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)