In many ways, the year 2021 was a landmark year for people with intellectual disabilities in India. From landmark Supreme Court judgment to groundbreaking scientific discoveries that deepened our understanding of autism, this year gave the autism community a lot to rejoice about. And while there was a lot to celebrate, a few stories reminded us how there’s a lot that remains to be done when it comes to creating an empathetic world.
As 2021 comes to an end, we’ve rounded up a few stories that stood out.
Autistic people and government jobs
2021 began on a very happy note for the autism community. In a welcome step, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment rolled out a scheme making people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities eligible for government jobs. This has opened up more than 3000 positions for people with benchmark disabilities. This was a landmark step in India’s journey towards inclusivity as it now makes people with disabilities eligible for senior positions in government agencies too.
Free national helpline
India got a free national helpline (9100 181 181), dedicated to providing the families of people with autism free counseling and guidance about the various aspects of the condition. It can be used by parents of autistic children to reach out to experts and voice their concerns regarding their child’s physical, developmental, and health issues. It will also provide them with useful information about inclusive education and various government schemes meant to serve children with special needs better.
Autism Centre and Sensory Park at Latur
In 2021, Maharashtra’s Latur district got a first-of-its-kind autism center and sensory park in a joint venture between the local Zilla Parishad’s social welfare department (that spent Rs. 1 crore on the project) and a religious organization. It is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, specially designed in keeping with the sensory needs of autistic children. Manned by several experts, the Autism Centre and Sensory Park will provide free treatment, counseling, and rehabilitation services to autistic kids. It will help them tackle issues like multiple disabilities and hyperactivity among others.
Surveys to identify Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in Arunachal Pradesh
Assessment surveys aimed at identifying Persons with Intellectual Disabilities were conducted in Arunachal Pradesh – the only state with no empowerment schemes for divyangjans currently operational. NIEPID (National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Intellectual Disability), a Hyderabad-based institute, also undertook the distribution of learning and teaching material worth Rs. 20 lakhs among those identified with such disabilities.
Appointment of special teachers for students with special needs
The Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgment in October 2021 directing the central and state governments for the appointment of special teachers for children with special needs. The order was passed by the bench of Justices AM Khanvilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari, and CT Ravikumar in the last week of October in response to a civil writ petition. The petition, among other things, had requested the appointment of an adequate number of qualified teachers to cater to the needs of children with special needs, which too was accepted. The Supreme Court order also directed the concerned competent authorities to create the posts and initiate the appointment procedure within six months from the date of the order.
A scale to measure the competency of special needs educators
An Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) research fellow, Dr Hemendra Mistry, came up with two scales that measure the competency of special needs educators in India. The scales, also included in the National Education Policy 2020, are named Perceived Competencies for Inclusive Education Scale (P-CIES) and Teachers Attitudes Towards Inclusive Education Scale (TATIES). They are aimed at bridging the gaps between the skill levels of a teacher and the need for further training. His pathbreaking research has earned him two copyrights in teacher’s training, paving way for more inclusive educational opportunities across the country.
Free behavioral therapy for kids
World Autism Day on April 2 was marked by the inauguration of a district-level early intervention center, Saathvik, at the Coimbatore Medical College and Hospital. The center, run by the NGO Third Eye, provides free applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to children with developmental disorders. It is a first-of-its-kind early intervention center in the district, inaugurated with a vision to improve the quality of life of children with conditions like autism, ADHD, and cerebral palsy among others. This is a positive step towards inclusive healthcare for children from marginalized families that can’t afford therapy offered by private practitioners for a fee ranging anywhere between Rs. 500 and Rs. 3,000 per session.
This year, India took positive strides towards more inclusive education. The National Education Policy 2020, a new set of guidelines for the education sector, includes an entire section dedicated to the inclusion of children with special needs. This includes those with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and autism spectrum disorders. The guidelines provide for special educators with cross-disability training, the establishment of resource centers, assistive devices, and requisite technological tools.
The State Council of Education Research and Training (SCERT) of the Uttar Pradesh Government designed a new curriculum and textbooks keeping children with special needs in mind. The curriculum is aimed at enabling these children to be admitted to government-run schools of the state – making affordable education available for all. The new books have been designed and developed by linguistics and special education experts to ensure that they are conducive to the needs of the special needs students.
India’s English Language Teaching Institute (ELTI) also announced its plans of publishing books that are specially designed keeping in mind the needs of kids with intellectual disabilities. The aim of these books is to make learning the English language easier for students with special needs studying in primary school. Similar books are also in works at the State Hindi Institute and the State Institute of Education, Varanasi.
Given how schools had to shift to an online model owing to the global coronavirus pandemic, India’s education ministry released a new set of guidelines focused on developing e-content that caters to children with special needs. These guidelines cover children with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities – taking the country a step closer to realizing the goal of inclusive education.
Indian director Jiju Antony’s ‘A Miracle of Love,’ received international recognition when it got shortlisted at the Busan Asian Project Market – the largest investment and co-production market in Asia. The film that offers a deeply personal look at autism and its effects on the family members of an autistic child, draws heavily from Antony’s personal experience of raising his autistic son.
The flip side
Even as other students moved on to an online model of learning, over 9000 children with special needs were left in the lurch as BUDS schools across Kerala remained shut since the beginning of the lockdown. BUDS schools for children belonging to economically challenged families are managed by local self-governing bodies, guided by the Kudumbashree Mission.
Pandemic-induced school closure across the nation also gave rise to another peculiar issue. It led to a delayed diagnosis of ASD in children. When regular schools were in session, teachers could identify the early signs of the disorder and alert the parents. Delayed diagnosis, however, prevents early intervention helpful for the development of important coping mechanisms and skills.
Due to the lack of social exposure brought about by the pandemic, several children between the ages of two to six started exhibiting autism-like symptoms in Hyderabad. Common traits like no eye contact, delayed speech development, and repetitive behavior were increasingly observed in this age group. However, these children often went back to neurotypical behavior and development with the help of therapy.
A self-proclaimed doctor, life coach, and mental health consultant, Mumbai-based Kailash Mantry claimed that autism can be “cured 100%” without medicines. This, in 2021, when the world has come a long way when it comes to autism-related awareness. Many activists reached out to Maharashtra Medical Council, seeking action against Mantry as his baseless claims would only end up undoing all the progress made over the years in empowering autistic children and their families.
To sum it up, the year 2021 was exceptionally good for the autistic community when it comes to administrative decision-making as well as positive strides, specifically from the government’s side. The global pandemic, though, has led to some negative implications for children with intellectual disabilities. Let’s hope the year 2022 brings with it an undoing of the bad things and a continuation of the good ones.