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True inclusion

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

The move to include characters with disabilities in school textbooks is welcome, but do we not need a more nuanced portrayal?

disability in school textbooks

An attempt has been made to weave stories of children with special needs into NCERT textbooks as well as Rajasthan Board primary school textbooks (Hindi Language). A close look at these stories provides some useful insights, including suggestions made by teacher trainees in Delhi and Rajasthan, during workshops held with them (1)

Each of the NCERT lessons Sunita ki Pahiya Kursi (Class 4), and Jahan Chah Vahan Raah (Class 5) have a young girl/woman with disability as the main protagonist, as does a story titled Naya Utsah  in the Rajasthan State Board textbook (Class 5). Sunita is wheelchair-bound, whereas Ila Sachani (heroine of the second NCERT story) has dysfunctional hands, and Mohini (in the Rajasthan textbook), has lost one leg to an accident. Each of these stories is clearly written with the intention of conveying messages about disability. Plots and characters have been created so as to convey the pre-determined messages. Thus there is an element of artificiality, something stilted, about these stories – as if they are presenting a social message, cloaked in story form. Still, this has been done quite well in the first story, which has interesting characters, dialogue and action.  

Sunita ki Pahiya Kursiis set in a contemporary middle class urban home. It dwells on the feelings and capabilities of Sunita, a differently-able girl, and the sensitivity others have -- or don’t have, and need to develop. The language is spoken Hindi and hence easy for Hindi-speaking children to follow. It is written in a lively style, and has likeable child characters. Illustrations are imaginative, and help bring out nuances of events, facial expressions, and body language. They depict a range of emotions, for instance Sunita’s enthusiasm when she wakes up, and at the breakfast table.  

The story relates to children’s experiential worlds. Sunita is excited about going to the market on her own for the first time. She dresses herself, has breakfast and then goes to the market. Her mother asks her to buy some sugar. She negotiates her way, but finds a couple of steps which prevent her from entering the grocery shop. A boy, Amit, helps her; she buys the sugar, then leaves the shop. Amit is often teased by other children because he is very short. Sunita and Amit make friends. Sunita feels she is `the same’ as other children, and therefore doesn’t like any special attention she is given; while Amit feels he and Sunita are `different’ from other children – which is fine! The story ends on a lively note, with a third child, Farida, joining them, and all three racing down the road (Sunita on wheelchair, Amit climbing on it at the back)!

Sunita, Amit and Farida are the same age-group as Class 4 students, which will help students identify with the characters. For a child with disability, such a lesson provides a rare opportunity to be heroine of a drama, in a positive and affirmative way. Amit is shown as a kind, helpful and thoughtful child who handles his situation with confidence. The story presents certain moral dilemmas, and helps arrive at strategies to deal with these, in such a way that the whole situation shifts in a positive direction. Sunita needs help, but she does not want people to extend more help than she needs. Too much help can be demeaning, and leave the person dependent, rather than support her move towards greater autonomy. Sunita’s mother is shown as supportive of her independence. The shopkeeper seems sympathetic to Sunita, but exhibits a rescuer attitude, which she finds offensive.

The psychological effect of this story on children would be largely positive, since it presents an unusual peep into the lives of differently-able children. The story has drama and action, with no place for pathos or false sentimentality. The children are portrayed as resilient, full of energy and life, playful and genuinely concerned about one another.

The portrayal of Sunita as capable and independent, with a range of normal emotions, is positive and enabling. The story may well help children who have not interacted with differently-able children, to build empathy and a modicum of understanding about their feelings and situations. At the same time, Sunita’s independence is at points overdone. The writer may be imposing a new image of `normality’ which is actually a fresh expectation and pressure on the child with disability. Sunita is shown as robust and confident, with no feelings of physical discomfort or pain. In fact, many wheelchair users are much less mobile than Sunita, and require assistance for activities of daily living -- dressing, eating etc. To them, this story may seem to perform a disservice, by trivialising their troubles and obscuring their basic needs. 

The fact that people sometimes show unnecessary pity to individuals with disabilities has been well brought out. The issue of teasing within the peer group has also been dealt with competently. The teased child has been shown as able to overcome his feeling of hurt, and move on. The story projects a world where most people are sympathetic to people with disabilities, which is not an entirely honest representation of reality. The concluding scene is overdone, with Amit climbing onto Sunita’s wheelchair, and both racing fast on the road, Farida running alongside. While independence and fun are certainly positives, this depiction may be downright dangerous. Most children, particularly in urban India where the story is situated, will find it difficult, in any case, to relate to a road scene where there are no vehicles and children can run fearlessly!

Jahan Chah Vahan Raah (`Where there is a will, there is a way’) is the story of 26-year-old Ila Sachani. The story begins with the beautiful embroidery Ila makes, then goes back to her childhood, when she couldn’t play games that required the use of her hands (like vish-amrit, or swinging on the rope-swing). She began using her feet to carry out multiple activities including eating, making others’ hair, sweeping the floor, and chopping vegetables. Schools were reluctant to take her as a student, worrying about her pace of learning, security and so on, yet Ila studied up to Class 10. She failed in the Class 10 exam because she was not granted extra time, nor was she informed that she could avail of the facility of a writer. However, she did not let this failure be the end of her ambitions. Instead, she concentrated on learning Kathiawadi embroidery from her mother and grandmother. Using her feet instead of hands, she achieved beautiful results. It was a test of her faith and patience, but by the time she was 15 or 16, she became proficient in this craft. Later she added touches from other regions to her repertoire – chikankari from Lucknow, kantha from Bengal – making new patterns and styles which were exhibited and widely appreciated.

portrayal of disabled

The major strength of this lesson is that it is based on a real person, carrying details of her home, neighbourhood etc, which make the story realistic and at the same time, amazing. The lesson concludes saying, “Ila’s feet know no stops now. With a shine in her eyes, a smile on her lips, and unique confidence, she never tires of creating golden beautiful motifs and patterns.”

While reviewing the lesson, some teacher trainees at the Gandhian Institute of Education, Udaipur, wondered whether such a lesson would be of interest to boys. They particularly objected to an exercise which asks all students to make certain embroidery stitches on a plain handkerchief. Other students at the same institute, however, stoutly defended the exercise, appreciating the inclusion of boys: noting that “today, girls and boys are considered equal. If girls can study, boys can do housework like stitching and cooking”. At the Vidya Bhavan Educational Resource Centre, Udaipur, a participant wondered whether “an exercise with needles can become dangerous for children”.  One of the facilitators reminded participants that “children perform various kinds of labour, girls do household chores from a very early age. We need to look at what dangers are attached – as well as advantages of doing various kinds of work.”

Another participant agreed, noting, “Earlier we used to learn stitching but these days working with hands is not endorsed. The mechanisation of every activity has led to the state of dependence we are in!” Thus, a person with disability may learn and perform a creative, although difficult, activity thanks to strong motivation; while a `normal’ person, for whom the work would be much easier to perform, may not care to even learn it. Many men for instance, though not suffering from any physical disability, simply cannot stitch a button on their shirt if the button falls off. While a person like Ila Sachani has forged ahead, despite dysfunctional hands, making exquisite embroidery.

While Ila’s character and struggle have been well brought out, the illustrations are inadequate. Some beautiful embroidery could have been shown, winning children’s attention and interest: long descriptions of embroidery stitches are not likely to interest them otherwise. Worse, the illustration at the end of the text shows a girl climbing a mountain, using her hands to take support as she climbs. This illustration seems to miss the point of the whole lesson!

Naya Utsah (`Fresh Enthusiasm’): On the first day of school after the summer vacation, one girl, Mohini, is missing from class. Her friend tells their teacher that Mohini will discontinue school because she had an accident in which a truck crushed one leg, which was later amputated in hospital. The teacher goes that same evening to Mohini’s home. She starts crying, then relates the accident and says, “Now I will not come to school. I will not be able to do anything now.” The teacher (`Gururji’) says, “You are a brave girl. Why are you worrying because of such a small thing?...” He cites the example of a girl, Sabita, from a farmer family in Karnataka, whose hands were dysfunctional, yet she learnt to do everything using her feet, including bathing, wearing clothes, eating meals, writing and drawing. He adds that she remains very happy, and has given exams in various subjects, and done well. Mohini is surprised and inspired by this example. After the teacher leaves, Mohini keeps thinking, “If Sabita could do all work without two hands, why can’t I? It is only one leg that I do not have.” The next day, she awakes with a new enthusiasm, and using her crutches, walks to school. After that, she studies and later becomes a doctor.

While this is a well-intentioned story, it ends up being a caricature and a token lesson, because the reality of disability is completely glossed over. Not having a leg is treated as a “small matter”, and her walking to school is treated as entirely possible, so long as she takes the decision. While certainly confidence, courage and decision-making is required in such a situation, the fact is that these are seldom sufficient in themselves. The person with disability also needs practical assistance: the conditions for her success rest not only on her, but on the presence or absence of such assistance. Walking to school using crutches will be impossible for a disabled child if the school is at a distance/ the terrain is uneven/ there is traffic en route: she may require an escort, or transport facility. Similarly, she may need special facilities in school – the toilet may be difficult for her to access, the steps hard for her to climb. These factors have to be integrated into the lesson to do justice to children suffering from various disabilities. Otherwise, the onus seems to rest on them alone: they are under pressure to appear `normal’ in a very standardised way – without really questioning or expanding the definition and boundaries of `normality’.

Not only is a person with disabilities suffering from a physical disadvantage, but also such a lesson holds up the `model’ of an ever-cheerful, enthusiastic, and capable disabled person. S/he should be able to do everything a `normal’ person does. Such an expectation will lead several persons with disabilities to feel inadequate in case they feel despair, anxiety, sadness – or fear as regards performing certain physical actions. In fact, stories ought to accept and integrate the complex emotions that a person with disability will naturally feel, and see these as normal (for instance, grief caused by a traumatic event like losing a leg). Teachers and students need to be sensitive and equipped to understand and deal with these complex human realities. In fact, the lesson Naya Utsah does not evoke any sense of empathy for the person with disability: it is just a mechanical `normality’ that is `managed’. The story gives no indication of Mohini’s feelings, or the extent of her disability and the kind of support she would actually require to go to school. She comes across as a passive character, while the active agent in the story is her teacher.

There is only one poem (within all the textbooks we analysed) which has a child with disability: Ek Ma ki Bebasi, (`A Mother’s Helplessness’) in the NCERT Class 5 textbook. The main protagonist is a woman whose small son cannot hear or speak. She is shown helplessly gazing at her son, while he is shown “fearful… anxious”, unable to express himself, and therefore alienated from his playmates. The poet (Rajesh Joshi) recalls the mother-son duo from his childhood – “another child, like us, Yet strange for us, because so different from us”. It is a dull, lackluster poem, evoking pity and bewilderment, rather than sympathy or empathy with the protagonists.

Way forward
Including stories and poems with disabled children is a positive step in itself. Another welcome development is stories that characterise such children as capable individuals who can study, move about, and have a place in society. The stories have an enabling perspective, indicating that persons with disabilities have many abilities too, and the need for sensitivity on the part of others.

However, the portrayals are somewhat mechanical, tokenistic. The material realities of disability are glossed over, even in the Sunita story, with barely any attention paid to the fact that verbal encouragement is not sufficient, rather concrete forms of physical assistance are required. There is a need to build in more well-rounded characters, depicting pain, fear and frustration as well as courage and hope. The struggle it takes for a disabled person to function `normally’ is treated too casually in the stories: more nuanced portraits are called for.

Also, as a workshop participant in Udaipur pointed out, why are persons with disabilities absent from other lessons? The present approach of one or two lessons that focus exclusively and self-consciously on disabled individuals needs to be questioned -- if what we aim to achieve is true inclusion and integration.

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer and academic. Her recent book is entitled Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012

1. Workshops were held during 2010-11, by Sampurna Trust, a Delhi-based NGO, focusing on textbook analysis of primary school textbooks, through a children’s literature lens