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Interview | Bhargavi Davar on a Value System for Inclusive Educational Spaces

Belongg in partnership with The Wire interviewed global and Indian researchers and experts focused on making schools more inclusive.

In this interview, Belongg speaks to Bhargavi Davar, the director of Bapu Trust, about the practical implications of inclusive education and the value systems that underline it. 

Davar is a childhood survivor of Indian mental asylums. She identifies as a person with a psychosocial disability having endured long-term trauma from those experiences. Her work has been on gender, culture and disability studies, and the basis for the modern mental health policy in Asia. She is the director of the Bapu Trust for Research on Mind & Discourse, Pune; and a convenor for an Asia Pacific advocacy platform called ‘Transforming Communities for Inclusion, Asia’ (TCI Asia Pacific). Her work through these organisations is to advocate for the full realisation of human rights for persons with psychosocial disabilities, especially the right to live in the community.

On the conception of Bapu Trust

Bapu Trust is a 20-year-old organisation which started out with a very different view about mental health. However, as we began to recognise that the medical view of psychosocial health and wellbeing is seriously limited, our vision transformed into wanting to provide for community support systems and also address the socio-economic deprivations that push people beyond the brink of sanity – these were the early aspirations which led to the creation of Bapu Trust.

A lot of my motivation is drawn from my own experiences of being exposed to the Indian mental asylum system from a very young age; those memories have stayed with me and made me yearn for another way of working with people and bringing emotional support to them. Just as you bring food and water to people as a basic need, we believe that people should have a psycho-socially enriching ecosystem within which they can express themselves, live their lives, make their choices, adopt ways of life and be included as much as possible within their immediate communities. Hence, at that time, we had a very local view of inclusion rather than a global one. We took a small neighbourhood, worked with it, and slowly expanded to more neighbourhoods.

Along the way, we have also realised that we can provide counselling but people will still need food, with real cases of people being deprived of food, wherein no amount of counselling was going to help them. What they needed was food. So we came across many factors that affect how people in low-income communities live their lives, which suggested to us that our view of mental health needs to expand until holistic inclusion is the primary overarching goal of the programme.

How Bapu Trust’s work has intersected with the disability movement 

Bapu Trust has seen the journey of mental health legislation starting from the Indian Lunatic Asylums Act of 1858, followed by the Lunacy Act of 1912, the Mental Health Act of 1987, and finally, the Mental Health Care Act of 2017. All these acts are based on how one can deprive someone of their liberty and put them into an institution.

So, the human rights perspective has been in our minds from the very beginning – if you say people need care, why do you deprive them of liberty? Why do you add layers of social injustice to bring them into a system where no care is actually possible?

That is why and where we started looking at an alternative discourse. The old disability legislation had a provision for people with mental illness, so we have always been part of the disability movement. By 2005, we got exposed to an international convention called the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). We were also involved in the making of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, which started after the convention was ratified by the Indian government. I have written a lot on disability identity issues, because people believe that if you think of yourself as a disabled person, you are somehow demeaning yourself.

On a particular day, I was in a class and they asked me why I used the term ‘disability’, as it indicated my “disrespect” towards the community. You really need to respect people with disabilities, yes, but just like the queer pride movement, the mad pride movement and various movements worldwide, disability is considered to be an identity issue for a number of us.

For instance, if you call deaf people other terms, they will not take it well. We don’t say hearing impaired; if your friend is a deaf person, you call them just that. People have very strong identities connected to their disability and that’s where the CRPD also helped us. CRPD brought the exclusion part of the experience, added it to the impairment and gave us a more holistic picture about living with the disability, and that is why the antidote for that is inclusion.

So it’s there in the very definition of disability in the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Many of us who have written on disabilities and disability experiences take pride in our existence. For me, having a disability has been a spiritual experience in many ways because it makes me sensitive to people, value the importance of listening and participation, and respect the fact that we are a human diversity; we are not a monoculture. We are all very different people, and in our exchanges with the local or the global, we need to really consider diversity.

On the difference between special education and inclusive education 

I have had the privilege of being part of very heated conversations around inclusive education after which various groups went on to make provisions for inclusive education within the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act in 2016. These debates are very close to our experience in the mental health sector. I think the principal question is to understand if you are in favour of segregation and seclusion in the form of mental institutions or separate schools for children with disabilities. If not, are you looking at inclusion as the overall guiding principle for persons with disabilities? So it was this idea of inclusion versus segregation/seclusion that underlined policy debates at different levels.

When you create something special for some people, does it actually include them within the mainstream or does it segregate them further? I think special practices are a way of discriminating against that group.

Following this line of thought, I really started questioning workshop-style sheltered employment. We create something special, thinking it will be of use to people, but sheltered employment does not prepare persons with disabilities for a livelihood outside of that sheltered space. There is a clause in the convention and our own national policy that says that people with disabilities should be found in all employment exchanges; they should be able to access not just what is of use to them but also what is available to the larger populations, on an equal basis with others. This applies to educational institutions as well!

On the implications of the National Education Policy 

Even in the last five years, we just have had 250 sign language interpreters nationwide. Now, if we make it mandatory for every school to have a sign language interpreter, would that even be possible? What does the state need to do in order to enable every school in the country to have a sign language interpreter?

The deaf community really stood up against the inclusive education concept and said that until schools are truly prepared for such proper inclusion of deaf children, they prefer special schools, despite the segregation, especially as India has invested heavily in special schools over the years. So when are we going to convert all the special educators into inclusive educators?

The National Education Policy today is forcing people and academic institutions, as well as education departments, at every level to consider the idea of inclusion. However, what is going to happen to the millions of special educators? How will they upgrade their knowledge and skillsets, so that they can be inclusive in classroom settings? Will each mainstream school hire five special educators and employ them for inclusive classrooms within their school system? The education sector faces a lot of questions with the new policy.

I think there should be at least a few conclaves or niches in a school where children are able to communicate and play with each other. I have seen many films where if there is a deaf person in a family, then others rally around the child because they love them. But are our school systems enabled for psycho-social support in this way? Can a child with disabilities survive in this highly competitive environment we have in schools, without appropriate systems in place?

We are somehow expecting other children to rally around this deaf child, give them love and affection and perhaps even learn sign language together, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The National Education Policy is huge and I wish luck to all of us for its implementation. If it works out well, it will be great, but I do believe that a lot of children will suffer in the process of that transition.

On what inclusion means to her 

How do we expect teachers in already disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions to have the time and energy to unlearn and relearn in order to incorporate inclusive practices? Unless we are aware of our own capacity to cause harm to other human beings, just by the way we look or speak, it will be really difficult to have a truly inclusive environment. Having worked in the mental health field, for me, that’s the bottom line.

Inclusion requires a psycho-socially active environment, where we feel genuine care for another person, including children, and we are able to express it in affirmative ways. That is not written in the National Education Policy; there is no training for this. If we expect that the present cadre of unthinking, mindless teachers in the public school level system is going to implement the policy, it’s really going to be very tough on the children with disabilities. As a recommendation, I suggest there should be extensive, accessible training for inclusion across the school systems. It must be scaled up tremendously and be part of the government system, so that people understand what inclusion really is.

I think inclusive value systems are really important; we should teach empathy, connection, participation, social justice and self-care. I think these are all really important things to bring into the classroom to make it truly inclusive.

On Bapu Trust’s work with inclusion 

When it comes to our services, we have a huge programme in the low-income communities of Pune, where we work with around 10 lakh people in the inner city slums. The Seher Programme is one of the largest programmes in India, if not in the entire Asia Pacific region. We have an arts-based therapy course and a course on promoting inclusion in communities. Our goal is to foster a culture of inclusion in grassroots communities, whether rural or urban.

We have always been guided by the Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is our scripture for prescribing inclusion in all places local and global. We have our own standard community practices at Bapu Trust, which we learn a lot from. We also offer several modular programmes depending on what an organisation or a group of organisations needs.

Inclusion, as I have said, is a cultivated value. Through our programmes, we try to build a value system of inclusion, and provide practical tips for cultivating inclusion within communities. We discuss skills for negotiation, do a lot of anger management training in our communities, work on self-care, mindfulness and calming oneself, as well as body awareness and trauma resolution.

On the systemic challenges she has faced along the way 

People like us are not recognised by the system. Clinical psychologists, arts-based therapists, counselors— the mental health system does not recognise us, so we are broadly de-skilled. It is only today, perhaps due to various international factors and influence, that communities are starting to look for life-affirming ways of cultivating mental health. It has taken a long time and now we are getting opportunities like never before. Yes, there have been challenges, but we usually look at challenges as one more impermanent stone to step on.

How educational institutions can become more inclusive in their approach:

Inclusion is not just material infrastructure, inclusion is primarily an attitude. A change in the ecosystem is required for a change in attitudes, for which we need training for people who are the more powerful actors in that ecosystem. Every school needs an inclusion professional and inclusion trainers. Changing the attitudes and behaviour of people involves multiple demographics; we need to think about the parents as well, as they have a great influence on public school ecosystems. Parents bring their own expectations to the table, often not wanting their child to be exposed to disability, and can come up with all kinds of stereotypes and prejudices which influence their children deeply.

The biggest thing we need to do is facilitate attitudinal changes towards inclusion through training and awareness programmes. With schools going digital in their public engagements, inclusive technology and messaging can go a long way. Media and culture also play crucial roles in shaping public attitudes towards disability and inclusion and normalizing these ideas.

Of course, physical infrastructure is extremely important as well. It is the international baccalaureate schools and other high-end schools that will be able to make these changes, because inclusion has a cost— it is expensive. However, our country promises the right to education to every child, which includes children with disabilities. Hence, this is a cost that is mandatory for schools, so that children get what they rightfully deserve.

On the positive impact that her work has created

We have seen a lot of people go back to work or complete their education after they receive the support they need and deserve. As you know, we only work with people with psycho-social disabilities, but when a certain level of support is given, necessary resources are provided and opportunities are opened up, people are able to authentically lead their lives and go on to find the fulfillment of being a positive contributor to their communities.

So many people who we have worked with have been able to find some kind of purpose in their lives and reflect on their value system. We work in deprived urban poor communities and have found that even there, human beings don’t need very universal global aspirations. I think what makes us happy are the small aspirations, where we experience success and a sense of purpose. It doesn’t matter that every individual cannot do the exact same range of activities. With an inclusive approach, we have been able to bring this feeling of contentment to a lot of people, and I think that is what truly matters.

Her message to inclusive educators around the world 

I believe that everybody on this planet has the same job as I do, which is to do something for society. Luckily, I got my first wake-up call when I was very young, and I think we all need to await and attend that wake-up call. What is our contribution to the person sitting in front of us, our family, our communities? While helping others, we do need to respect our own boundaries and protect them, but we should do so with respect, dignity and love. Care is a very strong keyword in my life and the work of Bapu Trust.