Specific Learning Disability and the Right to Education 2009 Act: Call for action
Karande, S ; Gogtay, N . Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 56. 3 (Jul-Sep 2010): 171-2.
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Education is one of the most important aspects of human resource development. Because the RTE Act mandates free and compulsory education to all children of India in the 6-14 years age group, the unique learning needs of children with SpLD, who comprise 5-15% of the school-going population, can no longer be ignored.
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Specific learning disability (SpLD) is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that manifest in childhood as persistent difficulties in learning to efficiently read (dyslexia), write (dysgraphia) or perform mathematical calculations (dyscalculia) despite normal intelligence, conventional schooling, intact hearing and vision, adequate motivation and sociocultural opportunity.  These children present with “academic problems” such as reading slowly and incorrectly, skipping lines while reading aloud, making repeated spelling mistakes, untidy/illegible handwriting with poor sequencing and inability to perform even simple additions and subtractions.  SpLD afflicts almost 5-15% of school-going children and is believed to be genetically inherited. , Children with SpLD invariably fail to achieve school grades at a level that is commensurate with their intelligence.  Their “academic problems” also have an adverse impact on their quality of life, viz. self-image, peer and family relationships and social interactions.  The cornerstone of management is remedial (“special”) education. , Because of the central nervous system’s higher plasticity in the early years, this should ideally begin early, when the child is in primary school. , Using specific teaching strategies and teaching materials, a special educator formulates an Individualized Educational Program to reduce or eliminate the child’s deficiencies in specific learning areas identified during the child’s educational assessment. , Remedial sessions are necessary twice- or thrice-weekly for a few years to achieve academic competence. , However, even after adequate remedial education, subtle deficiencies in reading, writing and mathematical abilities still persist. ,
Hence, SpLD needs to be suspected by school authorities early, when the child is in primary school (class standards I-IV), and conclusively diagnosed at least by the age of 8 years for corrective measures. ,, Unfortunately, in our country, many children with SpLD often remain undiagnosed because of a general lack of awareness leading to chronic poor school performance, class detention and even dropping out of school.  Against this backdrop, the implementation by the Government of India of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) since 1 st April 2010 becomes quite significant. This Act makes education free and compulsory to all children of India in the 6-14 years age group, and it states that no child shall be held back, expelled or required to pass a board examination until completion of class standard VIII.  This act ensures that children at a young age do not experience class detention. It is known that class detention can lead to severe emotional stress in children, loss of self-esteem and behavioral problems such as withdrawn behavior or even aggression.  On the one hand, the RTE Act overall is indeed a great step forward as it will ensure that all children in the 6-14 years age group in our country, irrespective of their economic background, will now be able to attend school. On the other hand, it may inadvertently cause great disservice to the educational needs of children with SpLD.
By mandating that no child gets detained up to class standard VIII, it is likely that children with SpLD will get diagnosed fairly late. It is very likely that the school authorities will refer these children for assessment of their poor school performance to a Learning Disability clinic late (when they are in standards IX-X) or will not refer them at all. This would mean that the crucial time period for “remedial education” will be lost and that these children will have lost the opportunity to largely overcome their disability. The management of SpLD in the more time-demanding setting of secondary school will now be based solely on providing provisions/accommodations. The delay in diagnosis will also cause significant psychological trauma to the child and to the parents. The RTE Act in its current form thus is not likely to serve the cause of children with SpLD unless it is backed up by an amendment that mandates that children who are getting poor marks/grades, irrespective of their class standard, are referred to a Learning Disability clinic to undergo an assessment of their academic difficulties. This amendment is necessary as it would ensure that children with SpLD are diagnosed in time. It will also ensure that other causes of poor school performance, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, borderline intellectual functioning (“slow learners”) and autism, are detected and addressed early. Developed countries such as the United States, which has previously implemented the philosophy of compulsory education, have mandated that every child who is getting poor marks or grades (“scholastically backward”) should be assessed so that the cause is diagnosed in time and an Individualized Educational Program is created to ensure that the child is able to achieve his/her full academic potential.  Our country should emulate the same and the current RTE Act should be amended to ensure that every child who gets poor marks or grades or who is experiencing academic difficulties is evaluated, the cause of poor school performance is diagnosed and the same is addressed on time.
Education is one of the most important aspects of human resource development. Because the RTE Act mandates free and compulsory education to all children of India in the 6-14 years age group, the unique learning needs of children with SpLD, who comprise 5-15% of the school-going population, can no longer be ignored. Also, children with SpLD should receive quality education and complete it in regular mainstream schools (“inclusive education”).  To ensure that this happens, SpLD should be recognized and included as a disability at a national level by amending the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which is guided by the philosophy of promoting equality and participation of persons with disabilities and eliminating discriminations of all kinds.  At present, only a few state governments (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa and Gujarat) and the national Educational Boards that conduct the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education and the Central Board of Secondary Education examinations have formally granted children with SpLD the benefit of availing the necessary provisions. The Government of India since 2001 has launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (“Education for All” movement), which is a comprehensive and integrated flagship program to attain universal elementary education in the country in a mission mode. Launched in partnership with the state governments, the program aims to provide useful and relevant education to all children, including children with disabilities.  Once SpLD is recognized as a disability by the Government of India, children with SpLD with the backing of the RTE Act would be able to benefit significantly.
At present, there is an acute shortage of remedial teachers even in a mega city like Mumbai, and most schools do not have a remediation center on their premises.  Many parents cannot afford the services of special educators working in the private sector (one session costs from about Rs. 250 to Rs. 500).  The RTE Act mandates that the school infrastructure (where there is a problem) be improved in 3 years, or else its recognition would get cancelled.  Funds from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan would now be available to set up detection centers in every city/town/district headquarters and remediation centers in each school all over the country. Also, the RTE Act mandates that school teachers should have the necessary adequate professional qualifications to ensure quality of education. The Act makes funds available for teachers to undergo the necessary training and acquire the skills to ensure this. Regular school teachers can now be encouraged to take up the additional responsibility of becoming remedial teachers to reduce their current acute shortage.
To conclude, we believe that the implementation of the RTE Act is going to affect children with SpLD in a major way. We have highlighted the acute need to urgently amend the current RTE Act and the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act so that children with SpLD get an equal opportunity to achieve their full academic potential and place in society as well-educated and confident adults.
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Specific Learning Disability and the Right to Education 2009 Act: Call for action