“We need to talk about the systems that fail our children, and we need to act, NOW!”

I’d like to share something about Ajay (name changed)– a friend of mine from school. Like many of us, Ajay enjoyed playing pranks and having a good time with his friends. Also like many of us, Ajay fought a daily battle at school- taking down copious notes in three languages as the teacher dictated them at close to warp speed, drawing and labelling diagrams before the science period, plotting places on the map before the geography teacher checked everyone’s map-book- and here’s the clincher- ensuring every smidgen of ink on paper was as neat as the rows of tulips in the gardens of the Netherlands.  

Ajay loved music and played the keyboard very well. We performed together (I was his fellow keyboardist) at various events in school. He was very adept at using the computer and I used to be amazed at the shortcuts and hacks he knew around various tasks that could be performed on a computer. I also did a science project with him in school and watching him explain the workings of the model we had put together was a sight to behold! Although I could never claim to be one of his closest friends, I would like to believe we had a healthy working relationship and I got to see Ajay in his element in different situations.

Ajay, however, was almost a different person inside the classroom. He wouldn’t speak too much, wouldn’t meet anyone’s gaze and would often seem to be engaged in his own thoughts. He would play some pranks but would invariably get pulled up by the teacher; the ensuing sequence of events was never pretty. I would often see Ajay being subjected to corporal punishment- thrashing with a cane, a wooden ruler, a fat book, the front and back of the hand and repeated shoving and jabbing. All of this was meant to punish him for not paying attention in class, for not writing ‘neatly’, not completing his notes and homework on time. Sometimes, there would be a prophecy at the end of the thrashing: “you will never do anything worthwhile in life”. I never understood why he would not even react on many such occasions, thereby making the teacher feel that he was not remorseful for his ‘mistakes’ and that he was deserving of some more thrashing! However, on some days, he would wince in pain or even ask the teacher to stop. 

School goers, as I have learned from my own experience being one, can be extremely nasty to anyone who is perceived as ‘weird’. What made matters worse was that Ajay had to contend with adolescent boys in an all boys’ school who were at various points in their journey of forming their identities as ‘real’ men. He would sometimes be teased or be at the receiving end of a nasty prank played by one of us in class but would somehow end up being portrayed as the ‘instigator’ in the version articulated very expertly by one of us. The end result: another thrashing for Ajay. Outside the classroom, one of us would call him names- the usual suspects: duffer, idiot, slowcoach. 

As the years rolled by, most of us finished school, went to junior college and then went on to become graduates. I learned a few years after finishing school that Ajay was diagnosed with a Learning Disability and with the support thus made available to him, he went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a technical subject from a reputed college. Although this diagnosis seemed to help make sense of Ajay’s challenges in the classroom, I was left wondering how NOBODY knew or found out why Ajay ‘behaved’ the way he did. How come no one- teacher, student, or any parent who may have interacted with him- understood what he was going through? How come his ‘shortcomings’ in class were attributed to laziness or disinterest in studies? The fact that he went on the pursue a technical course clearly suggested he wasn’t disinterested in studies!

I am not trying to suggest that Ajay never skipped his homework or never played a nasty prank on anyone but that he was merely being himself (just like the rest of us): a sum of his choices and experiences; some good, some bad. However, I find it extremely hard to look past- how sad he would have felt at being misunderstood by people he spent 6-8 hours with, on a daily basis; how dehumanized he would have felt at being mistreated by his teachers and fellow classmates; how his self-esteem would have been badgered by the constant criticisms and nasty remarks from all quarters; how he would have processed all these experiences; how all of these would have impacted his mental health- all of this as a teenager going to school. One must also keep in mind that all children in the above situations, including Ajay, were themselves in their journey of forming their identities and making sense of the world around them, and their minds were malleable to experiences, both good and bad. Therefore, the underlying issues at play here were all systemic.

Based on my experiences with two organizations- one supporting children experiencing disabilities reach their maximum potential and the other building social-emotional competencies in children so that they can understand themselves and their emotions, and constructively engage with society- I have come to realize how important it is for us to act on:

1. The need for our teachers and the broader schooling system to understand how to identify and support children experiencing disabilities and diverse social, emotional and physical needs, through an inclusive approach which also sensitizes children not experiencing disabilities (Children with disabilities are more than 5 times more likely to be out of school compared to those not experiencing disabilities 1a; Inclusion leads to either positive or neutral academic outcomes for children not experiencing disabilities 1b)  

2. The need for social-emotional learning (SEL) to be an integral part of the schooling experience for each child. It is imperative that each child is supported in his/her understanding of his/her social identity and in his/her understanding of his/her emotions and the emotions of others around him/her (SEL in schools leads to significantly better outcomes related to education, skill development, relationships, emotional well-being and social behaviour)2           

3. The devastating impact that the ill-treatment in an environment that is not supportive of children with diverse needs has on their mental health (25-40% of people with learning disabilities experience mental health problems)3

4. The need to ensure that corporal punishment is not practiced in our classrooms (RTE Act, 2009, prohibits ‘physical punishment and mental harassment’ and makes it a punishable offence)4 and the need to support our teachers to understand behaviours and how to manage them in the context of classrooms (Corporal punishment leads to increased aggression, exacerbated bad behaviour, mental health challenges and reduced cognitive ability)5

The rights of a shocking number of children, the ones we are supposedly building a better world for,  are violated with impunity on a daily basis. We have children dying preventable deaths due to civic apathy. Our economic indicators may or may not be great (based on your political leaning) but the indicators of child welfare are certainly not great. What can we do, you ask? I would urge everyone reading this to please start conversations in their circles about our children, the various aspects of their life (well-being, safety, recreation, education, etc.) and contribute to organizations working with children. Not everyone can start an organization for children but everyone can certainly support the several wonderful organizations that are supporting the diverse needs of all children in various capacities. Also, let us please not take a step in this direction because of the fear that our child may suffer like Ajay did, but because no child should suffer like Ajay did. Let us do this because this is undoubtedly the right thing to do, regardless of any and all of our differences.   

About the writer:

Niranjanraj Ramasundaram, an engineer by qualification, has a combined experience of 6 years in the start-up and development sectors through his work at Nanosniff Technologies (a nanotechnology based healthcare venture) and Ummeed Child Development Center (one of India’s premier NGOs in the disability sector). He volunteered with Apni Shala from June to Aug, 2019. He will be pursuing his MA in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies (Sussex, UK) starting this September. 

References:

1a Out of School Children Initiative- Children with Disabilities, UNICEF & UIS 2014

1bhttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/312084483_A_Summary_of_the_Research_Evidence_on_Inclusive_Education

2https://casel.org/impact/3https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/learning-disabilities/help-information/learning-disability-statistics-/187699   

3 https://www.ldw.org.uk/mental-health-resources-for-people-with-a-learning-disability/ 

4http://righttoeducation.in/forums/suggest-rte-amendments/section-17-prohibition-of-physical-punishment-and-mental-harassment-to-child    

5https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160425143106.htm     

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