As part of Women’s History Month, the U.S. Consulate General, Mumbai along with Rising Flame organised a webinar to honour American author and disability rights advocate, Helen Keller. The webinar focussed on navigating educational environments as women with disabilities in the India context.
The webinar was chaired by Nidhi Goyal, Founder & Executive Director of Rising Flame. Alongside her, on the panel, were Priyangee Guha, an autistic lawyer, and Niyar Saikia, an actor & student with speech disability.
The audience consisted of 69 people, most of whom were teachers, counsellors, and other professionals engaged in working with children with disabilities within the education context. They were from across India, with a few participants from Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The panellists shared how educational settings do not cater to children with disabilities. Nidhi Goyal spoke about the systemic ways in which disabled students have been left behind in our education systems. She raised concerns about enrollment, retention and participation of children with disabilities being very poor. The dropout rates of children with disabilities are also 5 times higher. In this situation, girls with disabilities have much lower enrollment and higher drop outs. This becomes much worse in cases of intellectual disability and excuses provided such as lack of infrastructure to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.
In her opening comments, Priyangee Guha explored the difficulties of adapting to the needs of disabled students within the educational institutions which emphasise on specific learning and teaching methods. She shared the deep rooted ways in which fitting into the system can affect a disabled child and adult. She stated that when one sees her resume, we see someone who's achieved a lot, who's studied and been able to become something. However, what is invisible is the effect “of acting normal” on her mental health. This acting is mandatory in order to avoid bullying and therefore can be very exhausting for autistic individuals.
Niyar Saikia in her presentation spoke about the ways in which speaking as a form of communication is presented as important and how this leads to her being denied opportunities, both within the theatre space where voice is presented as essential. She reiterated how the many forms of theatre like body movements, mime were all not provided as options to her even in theatre school.
Some of the key recommendations provided by the panellists were:
- Accessibility is not just for those with disabilities. Neurotypicals and non disabled people too can benefit from provisions such as allowing screen readers, flexible deadlines, clear instruction that breakdown larger tasks, and going beyond textbooks to explore other learning aids.
- Give space and time to experiment, relax, and recuperate. Packing up a student’s schedule to the hilt does not always translate into meaning learning or engagement with the material provided.
- Design programs and activities such that ALL students can participate and contribute to; not just a chosen few.