Sensitization Programs: a Requisite for Persons with and without Disabilities
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In my last article, The Irony of Inclusive Education: Students with Disabilities, I speculated on making disability studies an integral part of the general social science curricula to enhance Disability awareness amongst the non-disabled. I also contemplated, that the teachers must be required to complete, at least, one course, on practicing inclusion in classrooms. Evidently then, non-disabled would be sensitized towards persons with disabilities. I intend here to ponder over the good-effects that, if not formal disability education, then at least, sensitization programs, have brought about in non-disabled teachers and students in a general school.
In December 2016, I was invited to conduct a sensitization workshop for 9-11 graders on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Besides the joy of an invitation to conduct a workshop at an inclusive school where I studied, the response from the attendees enthused me to reflect on the importance of sensitization programs.
To analyze and validate my conjecture, that disability education and sensitization for the non-disabled, would enable understanding and social camaraderie between the two groups, I conducted some research through a variety of means, i.e. formal and informal interactions, getting responses to a small questionnaire, etc. My focus groups were students and teachers with and without disabilities, studying and teaching in inclusive schools. I endeavored to understand what people with and without disabilities thought about sensitization programs. At the outset, I deem it indispensable to reveal, that I had a small sample, but it was enough, combined with my personal experiences and those of other people with disabilities, to substantiate my supposition on the importance of sensitization.
Teachers teaching in inclusive education systems, who had attended sensitization programs affirmed that such programs changed their attitudes towards students with disabilities, and that they have learnt to accommodate heterogeneous learners, focusing on solutions, rather than difficulties. One teacher said, that the sensitization programs made her realize, along with her co-attendees, that the disabled were not disabled because they had a physical disability, but rather the society rendered them to be so. If teachers willingly accepted students with disabilities and accommodated them in classrooms with the non-disabled, treating them equally, they would be enabled to perform as well as the others.
Students with disabilities from general education systems expressed that sensitization programs have helped them gain acceptance. Their non-disabled peers, though initially wonder-struck at their equal efficiency to work, have accepted them as part of their group, recognizing that they are different, but not aliens. Some students also said that the non-disabled learnt to properly interact with the disabled, such as not needing to raise one’s voice when talking to someone with a visual impairment.
Students also expressed, that sensitization programs, peppered with the personal experiences of the speaker with disability, have been more effective in conveying the potentialities and capabilities of the persons with disability to the non-disabled. Naturally, they get a realistic example. They see person with disabilities addressing them as guest speakers and are impressed by their achievements, and are able to empathize with their struggles. Importantly, all students with disabilities noted that sensitization programs stimulated a general discussion among the non-disabled peers, and they were able to, at least partially, recognize the equal capabilities of their peers with disabilities. One student made a particularly interesting observation. The sensitization programs helped the non-disabled students understand that the Bollywood or Hollywood representations of the disabled, could sometimes be unrealistic. They were a secular part of earthly humanity, and had similar emotions, desires, and intellectual and physical capabilities like the non-disabled. Their disability didn’t inhibit them in anyway, nor did it make them super-humans.
However, responses from the non-disabled students forms the most interesting ingredient of this analysis. A majority of the non-disabled students studying in inclusive education who I could reach out to, said, that they had not come across any sensitization programs. Notably, these observations came from students of the institutions, where the disabled students reported the same, and yet experienced insensitivity and discrimination. Conversely, non-disabled students who have had a taste of sensitization programs, had an entirely different story to tell. They said that they have been able to learn ways to assist their peers with disabilities without making them feel different or favored. A non-disabled student made a particularly notable remark. He expressed that a majority of students were focused on academia, and were unaware of disability as a social issue. He added that the sensitization workshop helped them gain understanding and they were ready to help their peers with disabilities, as they could understand the differences, the similarities, and most importantly, the ways to help them.
Inevitably, this observation from a non-disabled student brings home the pertinence of my persistent argument that we need to educate the non-disabled, and academia is the best way to do so. One non-disabled student went as far as to say, that the sensitization program had changed the way she thinks. The program made her aware and realize that the difference between the disabled and the non-disabled was in the way the same work was accomplished, such as a visually challenged would use a screen-reader enabled computer, whereas the latter would not, but both after all, used computer, and accomplished the same work. Students also added that sensitization programs helped them realize that their disabled peers were not objects of pity, nor they were to be shunned. Their physical disability was neither a drawback for them, nor for their non-disabled counterparts.
The positive effects of the sensitization programs that the non-disabled students have reported, in contrast with those who have not experienced the sensitization programs at all, echo the necessity to educate the non-disabled about disability and persons experiencing it. Persons with disabilities and those working for and with them, have since long repeated that disability is more of a social issue, and the discrimination experienced by persons with disabilities is due to the social barriers inhibiting their complete involvement in education, work, and social lives, hindering their overall growth and development. The inclusion of disability studies as a part of the general curricula taught at the school level, is a policy change that all education ministries need to strive to achieve.
However, as is apparent, policy changes take longer to be brought about, and then implemented. But sensitization programs, can form a part of the immediate social sphere. What such programs require is the involvement of persons with disabilities themselves, along with contributions of those who are willing to be of assistance to them. If persons with disabilities themselves take this initiative, they would be able to educate and inform the non-disabled around them of their capabilities, potentialities, and most importantly, show to them that though they might be different in the way they work or accomplish the same task, but they have the ability to put in equal effort and achieve same results..