When I was first invited to come to India to work with colleagues on the development of training for teachers working with children with special educational needs, I found this quite a daunting prospect. Although I had some knowledge of Indian history, literature and culture, my understanding of the Indian education system was at best limited. My experience of Indian schools was non-existent at that time and I was keen to visit a few of these before engaging directly in the professional development of experienced teachers.
Anxious to understand more about the ways in which provision is made for children with special educational needs in the country, I did what any other teacher or researcher working in this field would have done. I searched the university library catalogue and other sources for literature related to the development of special and inclusive education in India. For such a populous country there continues to be a limited corpus of literature in this area, and in 1999 when I was conducting my investigations there was considerably less. However, of the papers and articles that I found, there were a number written by a particular author whose ideas and insights quickly began to shape both my understanding and further interest in educational provision here.
Dr Jayanthi Narayan has written and researched in the area of inclusive education over many years. I first encountered her work in a book with the title, Beyond Basic Care: Special Education and Community Rehabilitation in Low Income Countries, in which she had written a chapter on special education provision in India. Having been the founder head of the Department of Special Education at the National Institute of the Mentally Handicapped (NIMH), Dr. Narayan played a major role in in setting up a laboratory school for the training of teachers, and developing curricula for diploma, degree and post-graduate courses. She has also been influential in campaigns for the support of parents and has certainly influenced national policy. Just as in my early days of working with teachers in India, her work continues to inform my thinking about how schools are developing here in Bangalore and beyond.
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Jayanthi and listening to her present a key note lecture at a conference in Delhi, and today had the honour of sharing a platform with her at a seminar organised by the Brindavan Education Trust in Bangalore. Just as in Delhi, it was a pleasure to hear her speak with such passion and enthusiasm and a somewhat daunting prospect following her onto the stage to speak to the gathered assembly. Her words of encouragement and endorsement of the ideas which I presented today were reassuring and affirmative in respect of the work which I do with such good colleagues here. Though I have no doubt that her presentation was the highlight of the day.
Whilst it was Jayanthi Narayan’s work that informed much of my work when I first came to India, it was the encouragement given by Mrs Krishnaswami, the great matriarch of special education in Bangalore that initially made me feel welcome amongst special educators in the city. This formidable lady has been a driving force behind developments and training in Bangalore for longer than anyone can remember, and it was a pleasure to see her in the audience at today’s event.
Looking down from the stage today I recognised the faces of so many students with whom we work on the MA programme here. Their bright enthusiastic gaze was a source of tremendous reinforcement during my morning presentation. As I looked into the audience I reflected on the fact that Dr Narayan and Mrs K (as she is affectionately known) have been pioneers in the field of special and inclusive education in India, and that their presence today would have been a great inspiration to many of these young teachers. In the future I am sure that some of the students with whom we are fortunate to work here in the city, will be assuming their positions on the podium in order to share their experiences and commitment to children who are described as having special educational needs. This passing of the torch from a generation of Indian educational pioneers to today’s neophytes who will in turn become the leaders in this field is surely something that we should celebrate.
Once again I am grateful to all of my colleagues and our students here in Bangalore for the warmth of the hospitality received. On the plane home tomorrow and looking forward to returning in January.