Amrit Hallan

A quick review of “Hanging on: A Special Educator’s Journey into Inclusive Education”

It is an awkward confession: Hanging on is the first disability-related book I have ever read in my life. I have read a couple of autobiographical accounts of a few persons with disability, but when it comes to issues concerning disability, my reading is zilch.

Why awkward? A little contextual background. I have cerebral palsy with more than 80% disability affecting all my limbs. Being a decently educated person, one would expect that I should have done some reading on, if not disability in general, then at least something about cerebral palsy. I haven’t.

You can say that I’m interested in everything under the sun, and even many things beyond the solar system or even multi-verse, but when it comes to disability, there has been a subconscious resistance towards reading or watching anything related to the subject.

Hence, there was a natural resistance when I received the book from Kanwal Singh ma’am, the author of the book.

This, coupled with the fact that it is a paper book and as is the case with all the paper books, I need a table and chair and a proper sitting position to be able to read it, it took me some time to read this book which is less than 100 pages. I read all my books on Kindle these days. Even if someone gives me a paperback or a hardcover, if I really want to read the book, I purchase a digital copy.

Kanwal ma’am is a trained special educator plus inclusion specialist. Although, as per the book, these days what she, or what her colleagues are, is in a state of existential confusion.

She got her special education training from my alma mater The Spastic Society of Northern India (now AADI — Action for Ability Development and Inclusion). I think when she joined as a trainee I was in and out of the school — I had left the school for higher studies, but I remember seeing her.

So, coming to the book…

“Hanging on” is an attempt to trigger a critical dialogue on the state of special education, inclusive education, and the direction these 2 fields must take to make a meaningful impact on all the stakeholders — students with disabilities, special educators, inclusion experts, and of course the “normal” teachers and students in schools.

Kanwal ma’am says that special educators and inclusive education experts, at the most fundamental level, have no clue who they are and what they are achieving.

Special education in the beginning happened in “special schools”, for example, the school where I studied.

All the students in my school had cerebral palsy. We may have had different disabilities, but all our disabilities were caused due to cerebral palsy.

We studied at our own pace. We had special desks and chairs. Our teachers tailored the course material according to individual capacities of the students. Before it was decided that I would appear for the mainstream board exams, I was studying English from the 4th standard, mathematics from the 5th standard, and science, social studies and Hindi from the 6th standard. The classes were similarly configured for other students.

When I was studying in my special school, special educators mostly trained for teaching students under special environments.

None of my teachers were “trained” special educators. They just came because they wanted to teach in our school. One teacher, Vinita di, came to teach us as a temporary teacher because our class teacher had to take a leave for 15 days. After 15 days, when Vinita di stopped coming, we were so distressed that we refused to be taught by any other teacher and our principal had to request her to come for a few more days. She stayed for more than 20 years. Such were our special educators.

Then came the concept of inclusive education.

Inclusive education means students with disabilities studying in “normal”/mainstream schools.

Sidenote: All the teachers of my time never liked this concept. Maybe they were resistant to change or their approach was more of welfare rather than professional-client, but they said the new approach was less effective. I agreed with them, but then, I don’t have the needed data to draw any conclusions. Frankly, my school days were much more joyous and happier compared to the students who studied later in mainstream schools, as per the interactions I have had. Since, comparatively, I had a securer childhood, I was more confident when I joined the mainstream school and later, the mainstream college.

Inclusive education…

Whatever accommodations are needed, are to be made in the mainstream schools. There should be no segregated education because eventually, every person must become a part of the mainstream society. As humans, we cannot exist in social and occupational silos. That’s the concept.

As Kanwal ma’am explains in the book, inclusive education took special educators away from the special environments. Now they needed to operate within mainstream environments. They needed to become facilitators, educators, counsellors, and liaison persons for students with disabilities, mainstream schoolteachers and administrators, and the parents of students with disabilities.

Special educators became inclusive education experts, and even activists and advocates.

It was easier said than done. Amidst fancy nomenclatures, esoteric concepts and confounding situations, most of the special educators lost track of what exactly they were trying to achieve and what was the role in the fast-changing environment. The ground reality is quite different. Mainstream teachers and students find it difficult to adjust with students with different needs, and vice versa. There are at least 153 other problems that only students with disabilities can understand, but that requires a complete book.

Consequently, Kanwal ma’am asks some uncomfortable question from her community of professionals: who they are, what they intend to achieve, what is the future course of action and where the professions of special education and inclusive education are heading? She grabs the bull by its horns.

There are more questions and less answers but then, the objective of this book doesn’t seem to be providing answers. The objective seems to be to provoke the status quo and shake her colleagues out of the inertia they have either fallen into or pretend to be living in. She calls it the Lala land.

The objective is to encourage them to question their place in the larger scheme of things. Hence, more than providing answers, the intention of the book is to instigate a journey towards finding the answers.

The book has been written in a very easy, conversational manner with the liberal smattering of hand drawn illustrations and graphics. The writing style caters towards a close circle of friends, confidants and the community of special educators and inclusive education experts. When you read the book, you feel as if a person very familiar to you is sitting in front of you and talking to you. Lots of spells from the magical world of JK Rowling. I never got to interact with her, but reading the book has been a wonderful experience and I’m glad that it has given me an opportunity to know her up it.

The target readers are special educators, inclusive education experts and all those who are interested in these subjects or those who have some sort of stake (students with disabilities and their parents and guardians). Even mainstream educators can read the book to get a completely different perspective on what goes on in the life of an inclusive education expert and what steps can be taken to make education more inclusive for all. Whether you read it in the comfort of your bed or in a café, the easy-going style hooks you immediately into the main narrative of the book and keeps you there till the last page.