Before the world can change its perception of ‘special needs’, one needs to understand what the term means and how children with special needs are different. A special need is a condition where, an individual shows mental, emotional and physical disability.

Children with special needs may show symptoms ranging from a mild learning condition to a terminal, degenerative illness as well as, they also need help and support in communication, movement, self-care and decision-making. Since the past 40-50 years, numerous changes have been noticed in our society with respect to the management and treatment of people with special needs. In addition, there have been many advancements in medical care which have made possible for these individuals to reside in the community rather than institutions.

Disability historical perspective

Prior to the twentieth century, social attitudes reflected the view that persons with disabilities were defective and deviant. Community people treated them as objects of distress and sorrow as they were unable to contribute the maximum for the upliftment of society and relied primarily on welfare or charitable organizations.

Current attitudes towards disability

Recent international and national legislation have focused more on the philosophy of inclusion and inclusive schooling. Grounded in UNESCO’s Education Policy (1994), inclusive education is progressively being accepted as an effective way to reduce biased attitudes towards the student with disabilities or special needs. Every year, “International Day of Persons with Disabilities” is celebrated worldwide on December, 3 to develop an understanding of disability issues and to spring into action assistance for the respect, rights and welfare of people with disabilities.

  1. Types of special needs in children
    • Sensory impairment: It is defined as any condition which results in a loss or impairment of the sensory organs and functions associated with it such as hearing, vision, speech and smell. Majority of such conditions can be treated and rehabilitated but some conditions remain lifelong and might require therapy and constant support.
    • Developmental disabilities: It refers to a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behaviour areas. Such conditions hamper day-to-day functioning and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime. It includes conditions like autism, down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities that often cause children to be removed from the mainstream.
    • Learning disability: It is defined as a “remarkable less ability to recognize new or complex information, to acquire new skills with a less potential to overcome solitarily”. These differ from child to child based on the particular cognitive function that is affected. Most learning disabilities fall into three main categories that are, dyslexia (reading difficulty), dysgraphia (difficulty in writing) and dyscalculia (difficulty in mathematics). The biggest challenge with learning disorders is that they are harder to spot and diagnose.
    • Behavioural issues: Children with behaviour issues may not respond to traditional discipline. Conditions like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and Conduct Disorder (CD) come under behavioural issues. Parents of such children need to be flexible, creative and patient.
    • Mental health issues: It includes intellectual disorders and psychological disorders. Delayed mental development, mental retardation falls under intellectual disorders in children whereas, persisting conditions such as anxiety, chronic depression, mood swings are classified as psychological disorders. Children with intellectual disorders have early symptoms that can be diagnosed easily while psychological disorders take longer time to be detected.
    • Medical conditions: It includes children suffering from debilitating chronic conditions such as heart disease, muscular dystrophy, cancer, cystic fibrosis and congenital conditions such as dwarfism, immunodeficiency diseases, cerebral palsy etc. These children may suffer from extremely poor health under prolonged medication. These factors have a severe impact on a normal childhood and take a heavy toll on both the parents and the children.
  2. Challenges in parenting special needs children
    • Among various challenges are:
      • Learning about disability.
      • Overcoming with the emotional and physical needs considerable for individuals with a disability.
      • Getting to the innumerable appointments with medical providers, therapists, advocates and school personnel.
      • Facilitating for appropriate school interventions, accommodations and placements.
      • Paying for many treatments and interventions not covered by health insurance or the school system.
  3. Challenges faced by teachers/educators in dealing with special needs children
    • Lack of experience in teaching special needs children in an inclusion setting.
    • An inadequate acquaintance in dealing with extremely severe disabilities.
    • Lack of adaptive equipment or adaptive communication and language tools to involve its students in all classroom activities.
    • Teaching compassion for students.
    • Dealing with parents of “typically developing” students.
    • Challenge to address individual academic needs based on their ability.
    • Challenge in planning day to day activities and keeping all students engaged and learning.
  4. Strategies to overcome disability barrier
    • Be optimistic.
    • Don’t ever give up.
    • Challenge yourself and try new things every day.
    • Love yourself and cherish your small attainments.
    • Be polite and stay calm with obnoxious people.
    • Accept your disability.
    • Do your best.
  5. Laws safeguarding children with special needs
    • Education Laws for the Disabled:
      • Article 29(2) of the Constitution prohibits denial of admission of a citizen into any educational centre run by the State or getting assistance from State funds on the ground of religion, race, caste or language.
      • Article 45 of the Constitution emphasizes on the provision of free and compulsory education by the state for all children (including the disabled) until they attain the age of 14 years.
      • Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 (1973): It safeguards the rights of disabled people in programs and activities which intakes federal financial assistance, including federal funds. It helps children with disabilities to access school services by requiring schools to provide accommodations and modifications.
      • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Enacted in 2004. It ensures that all children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education. The law outlines the special education benefit, including individualized special education services.
    • Health Laws:
      • Article 47 of the constitution imposes on the Government a primary duty to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living for its people and make improvements in community health – especially to prohibit the intake of alcoholic drinks and drugs which are injurious to one’s health.
    • Succession Laws for the Disabled
      • Hindu Succession Act, 1956: It is mainly applicable for Hindus which states that physical disability would not prohibit a person from inheriting ancestral property.
      • Americans with Disabilities Act: Enacted in 1990. It provides civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disability Act defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life tasks, an individual with a history of such deterioration, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities, including public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance.

Thus, looking into account issues related to special need children, it is essential that parents, teachers, family, friends etc should not consider them as a burden. Instead, they should be flexible to understand their needs and equip them with all such facilities and environment where they can excel to the maximum.

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A Ph.D. Research Scholar in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, College of Community Science, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, Karnataka. I like reading books and writing articles on current issues. A contributor to The Eastern Herald.