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Kanwal Singh | Inclusive Education in India

Updated: Dec 22, 2022



Think Inclusive: Season 10 Episode 8


For this episode, Tim speaks with Kanwal Singh, former director of the Vishwas school and author of Hanging On: A Special Educator’s Journey into Inclusive Education.


Kanwal and Tim reflect on her career working with students with disabilities in special schools and why her attitude changed toward inclusive practices. They discuss her experience as the director at Vishwas school and what she’s learned about sustaining inclusive education over the years. And what teachers need to know if they want to keep inclusive education going in their school or district.

Thanks for listening, and if you haven't already, please give us a ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Otter.ai Transcript: https://otter.ai/u/STNVD0IVekrI0SlYnwOkCEqXuos


PDF Transcript: https://3bd6e695-b492-4878-afa9-f79d8b09e0c4.usrfiles.com/ugd/3bd6e6_5620cb4971b14fdb82cbb8830fadbd85.pdf


Cover Art Image Description: black background; think inclusive logo in the top left; rainbow-colored waves overlayed with a headshot of Kanwal Singh; text reads: Kanwal Singh | Inclusive Education in India; S10E8; MCIE logo in the bottom right


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Credits


Think Inclusive is written, edited, and sound designed by Tim Villegas, and is produced by MCIE.


Original music by Miles Kredich.


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Audio Transcript


Tim Villegas

If you follow education in the United States or Canada, you probably know about the movements by families, state agencies, and educators to move authentic, inclusive education forward in schools, or districts where learners with and without disabilities learn together and are supported. But you probably haven't heard about the Vishwas school in India, or my guest Kanwal Singh.


Narrator

This is not a sight you would expect to see at just another school. Children with special needs walking hand in hand into a school with those who do not have any disability at all.


Narrator

But this is no ordinary school.


Narrator

This is a place where a big idea has evolved rapidly in a tiny space called the Vishwas [unintelligible].


Narrator

The idea of philosophy is called inclusive education. And that means every child irrespective of gender, social status, or disability, deserves equal opportunity.


Narrator

Those with special needs and get the same facilities as every other child.


Tim Villegas

My name is Tim Villegas from the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. And you are listening to Think Inclusive, a show where with every conversation, we try to build bridges between families, educators and disability rights advocates to create a shared understanding of inclusive education, and what inclusion looks like in the real world. You can learn more about who we are and what we do at mcie.org. For this episode, I speak with Kanwel Singh, former director of the Vishwas school and author of Hanging On: A Special Educator's Journey into Inclusive Education. Kanwal and I reflect on her career working with students with disabilities in special schools. And why her attitude change toward inclusive practices. We discuss her experience as the Director at Vishwas. And what she's learned about sustaining inclusive education over the years, and what teachers need to know if they want to keep inclusive education going in their school or district. Thank you so much for listening. And now, my interview with Kanwal Singh.


Tim Villegas

Kanwal, nice to nice to meet you over zoom.


Kanwal Singh

Thank you so much for having me know, Tim, and I'm super excited to be here. And a bit nervous too, because I've never been on a podcast before.


Tim Villegas

Oh, no problem. Yeah, we're gonna make it really easy. You're already doing great. So no, no worries there. So, Kanwal.


Tim Villegas

I'm really trying not to butcher your name, Kanwal. I'm not even sure how you got my contact information. I think it was maybe over LinkedIn, but you've been emailing me, like over a year. And I'm so sorry for that. I took so long to read your book, because I think that your book, it mirrors a lot of the confusion about inclusive education here in the United States. And so I think that that is something that's seems universal is that inclusion is misunderstood. Whether it's the United States or Canada or India, why don't you take a little bit of time and introduce yourself to our audience. They're mostly educators, mostly teachers, and principals and administrators, we do have some parents and family members. But if you can introduce yourself and say, your experience teaching, and then you know when you wrote the book,


Kanwal Singh

Okay. Thanks, Tim.


Kanwal Singh

So I basically belong to New Delhi, which is the capital of India. And that's where I've basically studied, and that's where I taught, and that's where I've learned everything about inclusion. And I joined the special education fields in 1988, which is like, this is my 34th year in the field. So I'm a veteran, I suppose. And it's been a very exciting time, or very exciting 34 years, I mean. It's been a very dynamic and action packed period in the history of special education, as you know, because it was like, full of twists and turns and highs and lows because it was during these 34 years that the field underwent lots of switches, you know, lots of reforms, and in philosophy as well as the educational setting.


Kanwal Singh

From special we went to integration and then we went to inclusion, right. And when I started my career, it was in an NGO called Spastic Society of northern India. And that time, I was very happy actually, I used to do my assessments using normal development milestones, and I used to plan IEPs, and then we used to have end of term reviews and all. So actually, everybody was happy, students were happy, parents were happy because their children were in safe hands, you know, getting all the education, therapy, everything in schools. And I was also very happy. And I felt very special. You know, I was protecting the children, the students from this very cruel and very insensitive world. And I was, you know, very happy. But this happy feeling did not last very long. Because there's nagging feeling, you know, that something is quite, like not right. And these six hours are the school these six hours of special school were more like, escaping from reality, right? It was like a make believe world where everything was perfect. You know, everything was like sunshine, and rainbows and everything. And what I felt was the students were not only cut off from the rest of the world, but we were actually over protecting them. We were over programming them. I mean, they were leading a very sheltered life for very, what do you call it, a checklisted life, or timetabled life. And then those questions started coming that what would happen to them when they became adults, when they finished school, when they reached 18 years, you know, what they remain in their home for the rest of their life? Because their social [unintelligible], and they didn't know anything? And who would look after them, then the parents should get old. And so these were the questions that started coming to us in the organization. And I think it was universal. Right. And it was around 2000. Now that think that that movement came about integration, you know, that children need to connect with the world, you know, you can't shelter them, you can't segregate them. And that's how the reform started, the shift began. And that was also the time when I was appointed as head of the special school. So I was actively involved in this shift, you know, shifting out children from our special school to mainstream schools. And of course, I think this was, again, a global phenomenon that not all children qualified for integration. It was only those students who had you know, those that potential, or what do you call it readiness. And they were identified and they were passed off, they were sent off to mainstream schools. And no support was expected from mainstream schools. And it was basically up to the students, you know, you either sink or you either swim, it's totally up to you. And I think it didn't make take much time to realize that putting the onus on students, you know, to cope and to adjust was not only unfair, was unrealistic. I saw the parents struggle, I saw teachers struggle, in special schools, also, in mainstream schools also. And of course, the students struggled, and many of them dropped out. And many of them came back to special our special schools. So that was the situation around 2000. And then came inclusion around the same time. And during this space, I was actively involved in the special education training course.


Kanwal Singh

Both lecturing and also modifying the course content. And that's when actually my real problems started. And that's where, you know, I started questioning, not the concept of inclusion, but the content, the course content, what I was teaching in the postgraduate diploma, because we introduced the theory of inclusive education. But the practices, you know, besides the first chapter, everything else remains special. We talked about the Inclusive Education theory, but then you again, went back to special practices, you know, disabilities and characteristics and identification and special strategies for special disabilities and, you know, bridging the gap and normal and everything. So, it didn't really make sense. Because, you know, something was, there was something missing, what we were handing over to the special educators to the students. The trainees was basically an assortment, you know, a mishmash of theories and techniques and technical jargon. So I wasn't comfortable with that. So I started questioning myself and I started questioning in the organization. But as you know that there are no answers, and usually said that everything is it's a process, it will take time, we'll see. And as the years went by, and we move from special to inclusive education, I realized how dysfunctional the profession was getting, you know, there were so many missing pieces in the puzzle, you know, all those gaps. So many contradictions, so many paradoxes. And basically, it's not only the course that was a problem, even the special tools as far as what we were not really practicing what we were preaching others, you know, the mainstream schools, we were talking about inclusion, but here in our special schools also even today, what you will see is, there are there is segregation within the special schools. So, we have different streams, but we have the academic stream, we have the functional stream. So even within a special school, there was exclusion and segregation, based on cognitive abilities, sometimes based on physical abilities and all. So there came a time when, you know, when even the the thought of inclusion, or when I looked at the inclusion of education vision on the board, you know, it's no longer excited me, I was, actually after 20 years, after two decades, I got fed up. And, you know, I decided to take a break. And I'm so glad that I decided to take a break, because the next year, that is 2009, I was offered a project to restructure an existing school, and turn it into an inclusive school, not just in theory, but, you know, in the true sense. And I spent the next four years at this school, which is called Vishwas. And these four years turned out to be the most challenging, but the most productive and rewarding period in my career, I would say. And I got the confidence that inclusive education is not easy, but it is possible. And of course, it's tough, but it's the right thing to do. And that's what those four years taught me. And after 25 years in the field, and with hands on experience, both in special and inclusive education, that's when I decided to focus on writing. So I wrote several articles in some magazines. And then of course, came the book, which is called Hanging On: A Special Educators Journey into Inclusive Education. And as the name indicates, it's about my journey in the field. And the book was published in 2020. So currently, I'm working as a consultant with a very wonderful organization in the United Kingdom. It's called a net, enabling Education Network. And it's basically global information and sharing network. And it focuses on rights, and equity and inclusion, of course, and my current project is supporting some inclusive education programs, and teacher training programs in Ethiopia and Uganda. But that's my thirty-four year journey in five minutes.


Tim Villegas

You did a fantastic job of summing it up. I thought that there's so many great insights in the book, especially I'm remembering some one cartoon in particular, where you have a special education teacher and a mainstream education teacher or regular education. And they're kind of pointing at each other and saying, you know, that, like it's your responsibility to teach the children, you know, and, and so something that something that we find a lot in the schools that we work with the United States is there's a misunderstanding of roles and relationships with educators and students with disabilities. So when you were setting up this inclusive school, how did you work with educators to realize that special education teachers don't just work with students with disabilities and regular education teachers don't just work with typically developing children?


Kanwal Singh

Yeah, setting up school was an amazing experience. And we spend a lot of time on establishing the foundation, you know, for inclusive education and that included a lot of work with the teachers. I think we spent 50% of the time training teacher sitting with them mentoring, discussing, and everything, and when we set up a school, we basically removed the special tag. So it was about educators not special educators, it was about education and not special education. So that's one thing we did. So it wasn't that special educators will go into the class and support the teacher, or the mainstream teacher will take support from the special educator. So what we did was, we just removed the tags, and they were all teachers. And it was a mix so, any class teacher could be a special educator by training, or she could be a mainstream teacher, that did not matter. Right. So we basically simplified everything, spent a lot of time and building the team. And we basically created time, and we created the space for ongoing support, sharing of experiences, in service trainings, you know, all those sessions in the beginning, framework was very important, we spent a lot of time doing that. And the whole, the idea, and the whole, the concept was that the starting point was, all, which is all about inclusion. Right? So it was everything we did was, all, the word all. It was enrollment or admissions for all, it was plans for all, it wasn't an IEP for children with disabilities, it was lesson plans or individualized plans for all the children. It wasn't gross motor sessions, it was basically sports and game for all. It wasn't music therapy, it was music dance for all. You know, we didn't use terms like sensory garden or sensory stimulation, we used general words like playground, you know, we stopped saying things like, you know, task analysis, we just said, let's just teach in steps, let's just break it down into steps. Instead of using the word collaboratively, you know, these words scare people, especially people who, you know, already, kind of, it's a new situation for them. So we work together, as simple as that. Not saying things like, Okay, we will do Universal Design for Learning. Just, you know, used to work like open, just make sure that we use different ways to teach the same concept, you know, don't stick to just blackboard and you know, chalk just just in different ways, just use pictures. And so that helped the teachers becoming very comfortable. That is fine. Okay.


Tim Villegas

That's a that is a great suggestion. Because we we just were having this conversation in our organization about labels. We love to label things. So we label kids, we label our jobs, you know, and but we also love to label frameworks, right? UDL, MTSS, whatever, all of these different things. And you're right, they are, they can be very confusing, right? You said, you've been involved with teacher preparation. So what changes, if any have been made to help teachers understand what inclusion is before they get into the school system?


Kanwal Singh

So that actually is the problem. There is a big gap, because the theory is all about inclusion. But once you get into the practice and the strategies, then it's actually somewhere you kind of switch or you continue doing the special bit. So that becomes an issue. Right? So what I do is I kind of supplement. I just do my own take that okay, this is fine. But this is what you can kind of how you can approach it differently. So that I mean, it's not part of a course content, but I make sure that I sneak it.


Tim Villegas

I'm wondering in India, in your area, when people graduate from or get their teaching credentials, however, that looks. Are there really inclusive schools for teachers to go to?


Kanwal Singh

Not at all. I can't think of a single one. Yeah, that's the problem. And actually, that's the reason why I wrote the book, because teacher training is very, very dear to me. Dedicated to special educators. Yes, it's for the teachers. It's about their struggle. It's really not my personal journey. It's the journey of many special educators.


Tim Villegas

I wanted to ask you about your interpretation or, I guess, understanding of inclusive education, because I think that we're talking about the same thing. But why don't you you help me help us understand what you mean by inclusive education.


Kanwal Singh

I think all of us are aware of systemic injustice, and you know, the divide. Whether it's, I know that it's the same in the countries of the North or the rich countries. And it's exactly the same situation in the Global South, where people are discriminated against they are excluded from society. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, that's a different matter. And a lot of us like to talk, you know, I want to make the world a better place. I want to make a difference. You know, it's like that John Lennon song Imagine he sang about an inclusive world, right? A place that is free of poverty, a place that is free of discrimination and conflict. So inclusive education, according to my understanding, basically asks us to reimagine education, right? And education that is free from inequality, and prejudice and segregation. An education that is not dictated by who you are, or where you come from, you know, what language do you speak? Or how do you look? Or what you can do what what you can't do? So, basically, so that is my understanding of inclusive education. And, you know, people often ask me that, okay, that's all that is fine. You know, we want an inclusive world. But why do you want to make schools inclusive? Right, why school? I mean, the word should be inclusive. Why do you want schools to be inclusive? So I basically tell them that well, schools are a reflection of society. And each school is like a mini representation of the world, where students and parents and educators, they all come together from different backgrounds and experiences, different strengths and different struggles. So if you want an inclusive world, well, we need to start with schools. And building inclusive schools is actually one of the first steps towards building a, an inclusive world. What I understand that inclusive education is about belonging. And it's very easy to say that children should feel that they belong. Belonging is something you can sense something that you're connected with everybody, you're part of something, right, and you can't force students to feel a sense of belonging by using techniques and strategies and other things. I think the key words are all and together. So if all students are together, all students learn together, all students face difficult situations together, look, all of us find ways together. All of us solve problems together. So if you do two things all and together, belongingness automatically comes in so you can teach belongingness through a session or, you know, through some specific strategy.


Tim Villegas

What would be your dream of like, where you'd want India to go with inclusive education?


Kanwal Singh

Well, my dream is that, firstly, we can start with the ministries, at least get them together. So that we start thinking of children as children and not disabled and non disabled, or children with disabilities. And all that. So, so my, my dream is like, whatever I shared that, you know, all children studying together. And so my dream is what I want that should be realized.


Tim Villegas

And then what would be your advice to special educators, whether they're in India or in the United States or in Canada, or wherever they're their teaching, if they want to be more inclusive, what, what are some steps that they can they can take?


Kanwal Singh

Oh, yeah, so if I look at special educators in India, I mean, I have experienced over the years, what I've seen is that, again, there is diversity. When we talk about children, there's diversity and when I often talk about diversity in adults, because people talk about diversity and students, but we sometimes forget to talk about diversity and those were the teachers, special educators. So what I've seen is that not everyone has approached these materials and changes uniformly right? People have responded in different ways. So some educator just kind of fell through and, you know, like a breeze, and just kind of imbibed inclusion and the value and some struggles. And so for those who managed to adjust their sails, you know, kind of move shift direction, from special to inclusion. So I can just say, congratulations, you've done well. And if you're struggling, and if you you're kind of stuck. So what do you need to do, what you need to understand is that if you want something different to happen, then you need to do things differently. And it's not about, you know, a lot of educators, special educators have moved to mainstream or regular schools, what they just transferred, what they were doing over there, to what they're doing in the mainstream, so that that's just doing exactly the same thing, but just in a different setting. So basically, want I special educators to understand that your thinking needs to change, and your work needs to change. And somewhere you need to kind of address your, I would say, in ourselves, like, we often talk about inclusion as being a journey, right? It's a journey. And so, of course, it's a journey, it's actually two journeys for everybody. So people don't talk about both journeys, they just talk about one journey, the first journey, the most important journey, which all special educators need to undertake is the inner journey, you know, reflect, take a hard, long look, you know, at what we're doing, have an honest conversation with themselves. You know, I think somewhere, you know, you can sense that what you're doing, is it making sense or not? Is it inclusive or not? address all those feelings and address all those emotions, right? address those belief systems. That's what educators need to do. Right. And of course, there's the outer journey, which is you know, unlearning, relearning, learning new fields, updating knowledge, modifying practices, you know, getting new material. So that's the outer journey to what the educator need to do is, first focus on your inner self, that inner journey first, and you will get a lot of answers for the outer journey, because the outer journey becomes a little easier, if you know if you're comfortable inside. Right? Yeah, so that's one thing I would tell special educators to do. Another thing I would tell them is that, please, remove your disability lens. Just just remove that lens? Because you get a very limited kind of view. I mean, it's not easy, but let's try to do it. Right. And yeah, and we educators also need to understand that they are not the expert. Yeah, so that you don't control the child's students assessment and programs, you're part of a team. Inclusion means a team, right? To please, I would take your hands off the steering wheel, you know, stop controlling. And just just just be part of the team and do things together. And just remove that expert label also. Sometimes it's the pressure, you know, that you're the one who has to come up with all the solutions. So I understand I understand that you don't.


Tim Villegas

Those are great suggestions. Thank you so much. Will you let our audience know where they can follow your work?


Kanwal Singh

So my book is available only on Amazon, India. So if you're interested, please contact me via email, or LinkedIn, or Twitter. So I'm available on all the different platforms because that's what I used to promote the book because it was released. It came into the world along with COVID, actually, so


Tim Villegas

yeah, it did


Kanwal Singh

I kind of had to change my strategy.


Tim Villegas

So Kanwal Singh. It's been a pleasure to have you on the Think Inclusive podcast. We appreciate your time.


Kanwal Singh

Thank you so much. Again, thank you for having me.


Tim Villegas

One last thing before I let you go. During our interview, I asked Kanwal about whether the work she did at Vishwas was still going on, and how we can make inclusive education sustainable. She said she wanted a little bit more time to think about it. And she would send me her response. Here it is.


Kanwal Singh

Before talking about the school, let me first talk about sustainability of inclusive education in general. Now, in order to be sustainable, inclusive education requires the support of three things. Actually, three pillars, I love talking about pillars. So the first pillar is the people or the stakeholders. The second pillar is the systems and the administrative structures. And the third pillar is the funding the money. Now inclusive education has some support of all the three pillars. It has people, it has systems, it has funding. But sadly, the support is available only in theory, on paper, and on PowerPoint presentations. And the support has not really reached the learners, which is why schools are struggling to sustain inclusive education. So there have to be changes in the education system. You know, things like flexibility, diversity, differentiated learning. It will all have a real meaning only once there is a change in the rigid school systems, you know, the curriculum, the examinations, the one grade and one year norms. If you look at funding for inclusive education to sustain the funding agencies and the donors have to align with the inclusive education ethos, you know, the inclusive education philosophy, you have to stop pressurizing organizations and institutions to follow exclusionary procedures in order to receive grants. So coming back to the Vishwas school, and whether inclusive education was sustainable after I left, the school was set up about 12 years ago, in 2010. And I think it was way ahead of its time, you know, radical and bold, doing away with all the special tags, the labels, you know, removing the disability lens, and focusing on the learners needs and pace rather than age and grade. And it didn't really matter how innovative the ideas were. And it didn't really matter how beautifully inclusive the school had turned out to be. Because without the support of two pillars, which is the changes in education system and the inclusive funding, it was bound to hit a brick wall. And it did. So let me give you some examples. So in order to get the school recognition by the State Education Board, Vishwas had to do away with a flexible, unique model, and it had to switch to the conventional one year one grade model. So in order to receive grants and funding, it had to start making separate lists and files, you know, segregating categorizing children and as disabled and non disabled. And they've been several locations where activities and events were dictated by the funding and deadlines, rather than being dictated by the inclusive education vision. And yes, this leadership definitely plays a crucial role in sustaining inclusive culture and practices. I'm well aware that some of the students are spending way too much time, maybe about 50% of the time outside the mainstream classrooms, something that would not have happened had I continued. I mean, we would have found ways. All that said I'm happy. Actually, I'm very proud to add that in spite of all the obstacles the school has managed to retain many of the inclusive education, policies and practices. The focus on all students, all students attending and participating in learning very much continues. And when you enter the school premises, you can actually feel feel the inclusive spirit and the culture, you can actually feel the belonging element. And you'll see students disabled non disabled students laughing and running and playing together. In the corridor, you will see students who are disabled and non disabled helping and supporting each other without being asked to do so by adults. You will see students with disabilities having the space to breathe you know, getting the opportunities to make choices make mistakes, without special educators breathing down there necks. I'm proud of all that.


Kanwal Singh

Even though I left eight years ago, I've remained closely connected with the school management. I've supported them advised them whenever they've asked me to, and I will continue to do so. And I also support the school indirectly by talking about the school by sharing about the school, writing about it, wherever and whenever I get the opportunity.


Tim Villegas

Think Inclusive is written, edited and sound designed by Tim Villegas, and is a production of MCIE. Original Music by Miles Kredich. If you enjoyed today's episode, here are some ways that you can help our podcast grow. Share it with your friends, family and colleagues. And if you haven't already, give us a five star review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Special thanks to our patrons Melissa H., Veronica E., Sonya A., Pamela P., Mark C., Kathy B., Kathleen T., Jarrett T., Gabby M., Erin P., and Paula W. for their support of Think Inclusive. For more information about inclusive education or to learn how MCIE can partner with you and your school or district, visit MCIE.org. We will be back in a couple of weeks. Thanks for your time and attention and remember, inclusion always works.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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