Homeschooling Children with Special Needs – A Talking Point

22 Aug

In the last year, we have had numerous queries from parents of children with special needs about homeschooling. Many are fed up and frustrated with the existing set up of a mainstream school, where they have to constantly fight to fit in and be included. Some are also unhappy with special schools as they feel their children are not being challenged enough. Added to this is the fact that children with special needs often need many therapies to help them cope with and manage their disabilities.

Many parents approached us wanting to know more about homeschooling as an option, as their kids were getting too tired and stressed out with such a full day of work at school, followed by the many therapy sessions, with no time left for family or to pursue their own real interests. Then, there was also the question of the Right to Education Act (RTE) – how that would apply to children with special needs, and whether it would meet their needs, if they chose homeschooling as an option.

As a starter, we approached Vidya Sagar (formerly The Spastics Society of India, Chennai), one of the pioneering organizations in the disability movement in the country, and spoke to its current Director, Ms. Rajul Padmanabhan, in the hope of getting some questions answered.

Trained as a special educator, Rajul has been working in the field of disability for more than 38 years.  She is also the Vice President of ISAAC (International Society of Augmentative and Alternative Communication) and has also done her Montessori training with Association Montessori International.

Rajul was keen to attend the second India Homeschoolers’ Conference earlier this year, to learn more about homeschooling and take this discussion further, but could not make it.

Following is the interview that we did with her through a series of emails. While she is a believer in formal schooling, and yet is not against homeschooling, she emphasizes the role of the community in educating and bringing up a child.

We do hope this interview will kindle enough questions in parents to make an informed choice, while exploring homeschooling as an option for children with special needs. We would love to keep the debate and discussion alive and open, by hearing your thoughts and comments.  Do read on to find out more and do write in…

We have had quite a few queries from parents of kids with special needs, about homeschooling? What are your thoughts and views about homeschooling children with special needs?

Ever since the question of home schooling for children with special needs was brought up, I have been thinking about it. Being familiar with the concept and reading Holt and other authors, educationists and philosophers, I realize that I have actually just skimmed the surface.

But this was an area I was confident about, with over 35 years of experience in the field – from when it was initiated in this country up until now.  I have seen the paradigm shift in the disability movement from the medical model to the social model, and now am a participant and spectator with the disability activists.

With this paradigm shift came the concept of mainstreaming and inclusive education, and the outcry that disability is a human rights issue and that the disabled are a marginalized group.  Today there is a Disability Rights Bill in the Parliament and the activists are divided. My activist friends (who like me) want to kill the Bill as it is regressive and maintains a status quo, and is not in line with the United Nation Convention Rights of People with Disability (UNCRPD), while the other faction wants to pass it.

Vidya Sagar, a Chennai based NGO, working with children and adults with special needs and their families, has also worked aggressively to include disability in the RTE Act.  But all along there have been questions in my mind. Not that special schools are better but rather, can mainstream schools be made better to include more children?

At the outset, I want to say – I believe in schooling – but schooling of a sort, where learning happens with “joy and curiosity“.  I also want to say that I don’t believe in “one form of schooling”. Education is one area where so many ideas have been tried out – from Nalli Kali to Gandhi’s Basic Education, to the latest Activity Based Learning (ABL). I think homeschooling is another form – but to me, it is based on the politic of the individual.  Homeschooling depends on so many parameters and therefore becomes a choice of the elite. I do not subscribe to the notion of the child being only the responsibility of the parents, and this is more so when the child has special needs.  The community has to take responsibility for the education and rehabilitation of the child with special needs.

I think like all other parents, the choice has to be with the parents – except that it has to be an informed choice from the perspective of cognitive development and enhancement, rather than from the perspective of safety, charity and low expectation.

Low expectation is the “killer” for the child with special needs. A parent rarely challenges the child with special needs, a teacher definitely does not. The whole concept of IEP (Individualised Education Programme) is based on where the child “is” and not where he should “be”. And his future is decided on the basis of protection and care, and not what he or she would like to do.

The second “killer” is isolation. Children with disability are isolated – physically, emotionally and socially – because of their disability.  He or she cannot explore the environment due to physical limitations, cannot converse because of lack of speech and cannot be socially and emotionally mature due to a number of limitations.  How much learning can then happen?

Plus a parent of a child with special needs may also be going through a traumatic period. The parent is often busy looking after the physical needs of the child. Would that then provide an environment conducive to learning?

How do you think the needs of children with special needs can be met in mainstream schools? Or is it only a remote possibility?

You know, I am a little confused about what one means when one says “needs” of children – special or otherwise. But if we go by the traditional or conventional meaning – I think if the school decides to take ownership of the child’s education, the school will have to find “ways” to meet those needs.  One school, institution, organization or even one set of adults cannot meet all needs of anyone.  It is the interaction with different people, situation, circumstances that can make your life richer; and that I hope a mainstream school will provide.  I had once asked a young boy with disability who was studying in a mainstream school, if his friends were insensitive or left him out, or if he felt stigmatized. He replied “Nothing can be more stigmatizing or more boring than a special school.”

I think we underestimate government schools teachers.  I think it is possible for any school to make a child feel wanted. There was a young disabled girl studying in a mainstream school who came to me really happy and said “Didi Didi, Aaj teacher ne mere ko bhi maara!” (Didi Didi , today teacher hit me also). The teacher used to lightly hit all children, but leave this child out, and when she included this child, she was really happy.

So I think a mainstream school, mainstreams a special child.  That is the first big step – but having said that, how much learning really happens is a huge question.  Some disabled sail through with the same pluses and minuses that a non-disabled child goes through, but where there are disabilities which require special interventions, they sometimes lose out. But this would happen in any environment. A parent or community may or may not be able to address special needs. The fact that the child is with his peers, listening to conversations, may ensure some amount of incidental learning.

Friendships – again there are very few, in fact none where the teacher is sensitive enough to nurture relationships which are based on equality. Most are based on the ‘helper’ and ‘helped’ and they don’t last.  But if there is a single disability with no behavior implications, then it is an equal playing field.

As of now, I don’t think any of the challenges that a disabled child faces in a mainstream school are addressed by the school.  They are invariably supported by special educators and parents.  But then, how many mainstreams schools meet all the challenges of any child?

The question still remains – can parents meet all needs or can a community provide an environment that is rich and accessible to all?

Do you feel that parents of kids with special needs are best equipped to handle the unique needs of their child? If not, then how do you think homeschooling would or could work best?

I don’t think parents are equipped to meet all the needs of a special child – they should not be. But then I don’t believe in very individualistic education.  I don’t think the child belongs only to the parent.  The responsibility has to be shared to a certain extent by the community, for any child, and more so for the child with a disability.

Special children are isolated and protected. They have very few benchmarks; they have very few friends. Similarly a parent of a special child is isolated and if he or she does not share responsibility he or she is further isolated.

I think it’s necessary for any parent to lead a life of their own, and that is my one big fear vis-a-vis homeschooling.  There seems to be so little space for all in the family.  With disabilities that fear is quadrupled.

How do you think the RTE framework and the NIOS support children with special needs and their families? Since the RTE Act gives ALL children the right to education, and the NIOS gives kids an alternative to the mainstream choices, do you feel that they contradict or actually support one another?

RTE actually is not very supportive of Inclusive Education and the new Disability Bill (which might become an Act soon) is quite regressive as far as Inclusive Education is concerned.

The RTE can be used – the way I think we should use it is to strengthen the “school management committee”.  If this is strengthened, there will be ownership and the community will take responsibility for their children, disabled or otherwise.

NIOS – is an excellent alternative and has been used by a number of parents and institutions for a number of reasons. I don’t think NIOS contradicts any system.  It is flexible enough for anyone to use it to their advantage.

Vidya Sagar, as an organization, has come up with some creative solutions to the diverse problems and limited resources that families and communities with kids with special needs have in our country…..like the trans-disciplinary course and training and the Family Based Rehabilitation model or programme, where the dependency on professionals is greatly reduced…and the focus is on empowering the family or community….Could you elaborate on these a little more? Do you feel that these models could be a viable and alternative way of creating a rich, tailor-made, sustainable, stress-free and happy learning environment for a child with special needs?

Vidya Sagar’s strength lies in exploring and creating alternative systems and if they don’t work, throwing them out and coming up with newer answers. But all this is based on the belief that a person with special needs must have access to opportunity and exploration of his or her environment. This belief has led us to create a trandisciplinary course, a youth programme, a Kalakkal Café for young people to hang out and a marketing federation for products made by the disabled.  We offer interesting courses with a focus on disability. But though we have pioneered Inclusive Education and tried out experiments in Madurai, I still cannot say with confidence that mainstream schools today are “ALL FOR THE CHILDREN, FOR ALL THE CHILDREN”.  Once we realize this dream, the schools will naturally be happy places to be in.

What provisions do you feel need to be added to the RTE to make it more inclusive of children with special needs?

The Right to Education (RTE) Act in Chapter 3 talks about children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections.  Whereas the Preliminary chapter (chapter 1) has definitions for all terms including disadvantaged groups and weaker sections, it does not mention disability. But like all laws, you can interpret them differently. I would like to assume that all means all children. RTE is a powerful tool which can be used to include children in any mainstream school. But I would like to go a step further and say that RTE can be used to improve schools so that they become more inclusive, welcoming and happy places for children to learn and be in.

Besides legal measures don’t you feel the sensitivities of the society or community towards children with special needs need to change?

Legal measures set the tone, but only a community can interpret and implement the law, and for that you need an aware and informed community.  Disabled children are one minority; there are so many marginalized groups.  All children must have the same choice and opportunity.

How do you see parents from poor economic backgrounds affording a ‘good’ special needs school? Are there enough government schools offering free education to children with special needs? Do you feel that teachers in government schools have the required sensibilities and sensitivities needed to engage with children with special needs?

This is where RTE comes in – since it makes it mandatory for every child to have free education in their neighbourhood. The child with special needs can access a mainstream school.  RTE also ensures and provides that their needs will be met. In fact Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in South India has been supporting Inclusive Education in mainstream government schools.  They send regular peripatetic teachers and therapists to these schools.  These special teachers and therapists are trained by special schools. Special schools can be expensive, but today when the world is talking about inclusive education these government schools can be effective and also be an answer.

If a family has taken the decision to homeschool their special needs child, for whatever reasons, what kind of environment or support systems do you feel they could create in their community, to make their decision meaningful, rich and sustainable?

If a family decides to homeschool their child with special needs, they would need to understand the disability; more so, how that disability impacts the child’s learning.

They would need to work on all the therapies and incorporate them in their daily routine. They would have to make it possible for the child to interact with the environment and go through as many experiences as possible. They would need to work at sensitizing the community about disability.

They would need to be aware of the Rights of people with disabilities and build a support group within their community, to see that these rights are met.

Finally they would need to choose homeschooling because they believe in it, and not because there is no other choice or because they do not want to expose their child to mainstream education.

And again finally, they would need to create a happy atmosphere for the child, wherever he or she is.

Priya Desikan

Priya is a special educator by profession, but a life-learner at heart. She is unschooling her 7 year old son in Chennai since April 2010. She enjoys everything that life has to offer – from music, nature, travel, art, writing, poetry, reading, photography, philosophy, cooking to new-found interests through her son like chess, cricket, Lego, astronomy, gardening and weather-watching! She blogs at my musings.


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15 Responses to “Homeschooling Children with Special Needs – A Talking Point”

  1. Vidyut August 27, 2014 at 4:10 am #

    My general thinking on the subject is that school for a special needs child is pretty much like school for an ordinary child with some added drawbacks. Regimentation seems to be the compulsive instinct. Whether it is school or special needs schools or even doctors. The whole approach is assembly line. As if an individual can be well equipped by sequentially imbibing a series of pieces of information.

    If schools were really into learning, they would probably address the issue of isolation and more importantly, give the parent a break from the round the clock responsibility which can be overwhelming, particularly with children with severe disabilities (no, I don’t sugarcoat what it is).

    Unfortunately, that is not so. Children are molded into pretty intensive (and often purposeless) routines that can be stressful for normal children, and I really don’t see it improving the lives of handicapped children for their social status among peers and respect from teachers to hinge on performing well that is likely far harder for them.

    In an ideal world, teachers would be mature, sensitive people that children adored and who were always interested in being present – not just physically. In reality, teachers are often overworked to the point of inability to think outside the box or take those extra steps to meet non-standard needs in any useful way beyond “doing as job requires”.

    If school is hard for a normal child to be happy in, it is far harder for a special needs child to be happy in. Oh, it would appear to work, but the cost to the child would rarely be visible. In fact, the whole question of this line of thought emerges from the need to make special needs children “fit”. Reminds me of another ugly campaign, where acid attack victims are styled as models for a campaign. It works only when your handicap is your highlight, or they look uglier than they would in normal clothes, because a certain plastic perfection is the expectation of the style. Again, I don’t want to sugarcoat. With due respect and whole hearted support to victims emerging as stronger people, their strength being defined as the “young, slim, fashionable” cliche, in my view is a patronizing lie that doesn’t give a damn if they find the same reality in their daily lives.

    In my experience with living with a child with pretty severe disabilities, I have learned that forcing him to conform to what he should be doing tires him out faster and leads to virtually no improvements, while meeting him where he is, and enabling him to do more and more of what he is able to do provides him the variations to evolve through experience.

    I don’t think the current thinking on disability has evolved to the point that disabled people are people. If Nisarga cannot sit or speak (we’re getting closer though), it has not meant that doctors didn’t attempt to get him to identify alphabets and objects he had never seen, in a language he is unfamiliar with. The animated child that tries to babble along with his favorite story or hums along if you sing is absolutely clueless and trying to get the doctor to play – which the doctor doesn’t understand.

    There is no derailing the educators and doctors from their self assigned goals of making a child who will likely need lifelong assistance “independent” – whether he is at a point where he can engage or not. I mean, really? My child identifying a dinosaur while needing someone to clean his bum will make him functional? Why do we get into these farces? Why can’t the dinosaur be replaced with something that will help him communicate his needs more effectively? A general syllabus cannot handle that.

    This is an extreme example, but the point being, school isn’t a panacea for special needs children either. Eventually, it must boil down to the child’s needs. If they find school interesting, regardless of disability or not, they should have the opportunity to go. If it is not useful, then there must be alternative opportunities created. The objective is not the school, it is the child.

  2. Sarada August 30, 2014 at 5:23 am #

    Very interesting perspective. Thank you very much for sharing this information. I think we need to be aware of those special needs everywhere, not only in schools.

  3. Priya Desikan September 27, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

    Thank you for your candid sharing Vidyut. I agree with you completely. “The objective is not the school, it is the child.” – yes to that a million times!

    I feel that what we need is more healthy dialogue like this one, on this and many other issues that plague us today. I hope we can create safe spaces for this kind of dialogue where no one is judged or put down for his or her choice. After all, everything we think or feel or do is a matter of choice.

    The purpose of this article was to get parents of kids with special needs to think or rather ‘feel’ through their choices – whatever they may be. To present another point of view. To help them make an informed choice.

    If more parents are willing to share their journeys, it would move towards completing the picture is what I feel. We would have more perspectives, more choices, more possibilities. I hope more parents of children with special needs feel inspired to speak and share. I would think that that would be a wonderful start to co-create a more and more inclusive community where uniqueness and sameness are both valued and celebrated.

    • Trinity May 17, 2016 at 9:21 am #

      She certainly has beautiful lines. The QE2 visited Adelaide earlier this year and I went to farewell her, and photograph her for my blog. Your photo is expnetiocal; such a lovely backdrop.

  4. shalini January 8, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

    I want to get a thorough detail regarding admission procedure for my seven years old daughter who is suffering from cancer so we are unable to send her to a regular school.As genius she is it is quite a trouble to confine her as a patient,may be study and the very idea of homeschooling will bring happiness and positivity in her live and she will succeed in her fight against cancer.
    thank you.

    • Priya Desikan January 13, 2015 at 3:45 am #

      Dear Shalini,

      I am glad that you are thinking of homeschooling your daughter, hoping that that will give her the positivity to fight her cancer.

      We will all be happy to help you in whatever way possible and support you in this. But from what you say, it is not very clear to me as to what admission you are looking at.
      Are you looking at the procedure for re-admission later on, into a mainstream school? Please clarify.

  5. Sweta Matta March 8, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Hi…. I’m a mother to a two year old boy, Shaurya. I’ve been trying to get his admissions done in a pre- school but all in vain. Since declining admission is against the law, the teachers come up with all sorts different excuses, such as our teachers are not trained to be with special needs child, the seats are all filled up and the best one – we’ll get back to you.. Which not even one has gotten back. In an education system scenario like this one I personally think home schooling would be the best option. As my child needs one on one attention and is not ignored in a classroom of may be 30 or more kids. Please suggest how I could go with it and yes, mainstream school still my first option. If anybody knows of a school in and around Powai, Bombay it would be great help,
    I hope somebody gets back on this one unlike all schools I’ve gone to.
    Thank you

    • Priya Desikan April 29, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

      Dear Sweta
      Have you approached any special school so far? What special needs does your child have? Special schools these days usually look to include kids with special needs in mainstream schools and work towards that with the schools and parents. Do look up The Spastics Society of India, Munbai, who I know are working on inclusion in a big way….if attending a mainstream school is your first option.
      I will also check to see if a friend and fellow homeschooler, who is also a speech therapist can help you in some way. Do send me your email id. You can write to me at prisri30@yahoo.com and lets’ take this further.
      You could also join one of the FB groups for homeschooling and alternative education (look under the Resources tab, above) and post your query there meanwhile.

  6. Jennifer Rewadi March 29, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    Dear Priya Desikan,
    My nine year old son has been diagnosed with LD and ADHD. We have changed four schools till now and have finally made the decision to home school him. I need guidance and help as to how to go about with this. PLEASE HELP.
    Regards,
    Jennifer.

    • Priya Desikan April 29, 2015 at 8:17 pm #

      Dear Jennifer
      Please write to me at prisri30@yahoo.com.
      Let’s talk more and see how to take this further.

    • Gouri Agarwal September 8, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      Hi Jennifer…. just read ur post… even my child is diagnosed with ADHD and ODD with social behaviour problems… He is also a state level gold medalist in robotics and is otherwise very brilliant. .. do look for special god gifted talent in ur child as such kids are definitely go
      d gifted with special talents… I have also faced a lot of problems in school regarding my son and need help

  7. Shabari May 6, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Hi, I am interested in the homeschooling way for my 10 years old daughter who in in the autism spectrum. Please let me know about the admission process. We are located in Ghaziabad,UP.

  8. vasantha samson September 14, 2016 at 7:18 pm #

    I m in awe of the concept…yes having a child on the spectrum is indeed the biggest challenge of all…they appear normal and their condition and sensory issues get ahead of them leading to poor adaptability to the social.scene…yes most of us parents face rejection at all levels and there s this acceptance to live with…I have a son 9 alexamderone the spectrum who was studying from lkg to 5th in a inclusion school…but I guess on when you look at the future …it’s an ardous task for the teachers to deal with their behaviours etc and mostly not equipped to handle…I have been a proactive parent supporting the school but now I guess sometimes they come to stage if asking …how long are you going to keep Alex???I feel dizzy and wonder if I should have been happy that they kept him that long..indeed I don t want to keep my son in a school which is toxic and not accepting special kids…so this has opened up a new perspective..will give it a thought when all my doors are shut…yet a teeny weeny window opens…

  9. Shruti malagi September 30, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

    Dear Priya ,
    My 8 year old daughter is diagnosed with GDD & is also on the spectrum. I too am interested in homeschooling for her.
    Kindly guide & help us.
    Thanks,
    Shruti.

    • Priya October 6, 2016 at 11:19 pm #

      Dear Shruti

      Thank you for reaching out.
      Would love to chat with you sometime.
      Do call me on 9789097665 or write to me at prisri30@yahoo.com

      Priya

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