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Interview | Nafisa Baboo on Making Our Educational Spaces Disability-Inclusive

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

This interview features Nafisa Baboo, the director of Inclusive Education at Light For The World.

As schools move towards more inclusive models of education, we speak to Nafisa Baboo about her journey as a disability-inclusive educator, and how learning ecosystems can be transformed into holistic spaces for every child, regardless of their ability or disability.

Nafisa Baboo is currently working as a director of inclusive education for Light for the World. She is from Cape Town, South Africa, and has a good understanding of the realities of developing countries. Nafisa is an avid user and promoter of technology in the education of persons with disabilities and views inclusive education for children with disabilities as crucial to enhancing quality education for all and fostering a more inclusive society with no child left behind.

Her life story and raison d’etre

I’ve always been working with inclusive education directly or indirectly, partly because my father is a schoolteacher who is blind, my brother has a disability and I have a cousin who is deaf (as am I). Hence, I’ve always been surrounded by people whom society would consider to be disabled or lesser. I think that always aggravated me when I grew up; I couldn’t understand why people would somehow look down at my father or ask foolish questions.

I remember someone saying to my mother once, “It’s so nice that you took your brother out on an outing. Your blind brother.” “That’s my husband,” my mother would say, “He’s a teacher and the breadwinner. He helps in the housework and makes sure we’re taken care of.” I’d always seen people with disabilities in my surroundings as capable people, just a little bit different. I believe that all people have their strengths and weaknesses, so I’ve always been a bit unsettled by the way people perceive others. Moreover, growing up in South Africa, with apartheid and our legacy of discrimination, I’ve tried to be aware of bias and prejudice my entire life.

I have a daughter; she’s five years old. Being a mom and wanting to give my daughter a good education has steered me into examining inclusive early childhood education, because that is a critical period of development. So, a lot of my work has been understanding how to get to the root cause, to change things in a big way so as to unblock the blockages. I’m very dissatisfied with the progress in inclusive education, because I feel we should be and could be doing so much more. We just need to get on the same boat when we look at the problem.

Her work with Light for the World 

I’m the director for Inclusive Education for Light for the World. We work in some of the poorest regions globally. Part of my job is to provide technical support to countries and partners and do advocacy work on how to build more innovation into our programmes. We work with partners like local NGOs, teacher training colleges and other organisations in education and disability because everyone has complementary elements to our work. When it comes to advocacy, it’s always better to collaborate with others, because you need a critical mass.

The idea is that we provide more localised support to our partners there via amazing volunteers who go into communities to find children with disabilities, talk to their parents about the value of education, and dispels myths around disability with them. We also help them get access to surgeries and rehabilitation that could change their functioning or reverse their impairment.

Systemic change is critical, so along with community leaders, we also work with the government in the country and regional education leaders for a holistic approach.

What she hopes to achieve with her work surrounding inclusive education

At Light for the World, we see inclusive education as a means of developing an inclusive society. Personally, I would like to see every child develop to their full potential and be supported in that process, to get opportunities to learn and to be accepted.

I think there’s a lot of wasted talent in many ways, like people not being seen for who they really are. I just want to see a world where people are seen for their abilities, and not their defects or disabilities. So often, when you see someone with a disability, all you think is, “Oh, poor them!” I keep telling people that my identity is not wrapped up in my disability. This is not where I perceive myself as a woman, but as a mother, a change-maker. I want us to have a world where people see people as they are, as opposed to what they are not. Every child would be whatever they dream to be because opportunities would be accessible, without being hindered by discrimination and bias.

What she has learned through her journey with disability inclusion

One of the things I’ve learnt is that attitude is everything. I’ve seen how people have moved mountains with just the right attitude and outlook.

The second thing is that investment is extremely important. Without the right investment, no amount of discourse or intent is going to move things forward.

There is a lot to learn from other movements that can be assimilated and adapted into the disability-inclusive education movement.

Lastly, I think it’s necessary to always challenge what I do, so as to keep the ball rolling without getting caught on self-praise. There are a lot of issues that are still to be tackled in disability-inclusive education. We don’t have enough evidence and data of what works, so we have to create it. I think people have to be brave enough to do things that are disruptive and have never been done before if we really are to make a change.

On her definition of inclusive education 

Ideally, we want to see children with and without disabilities learning together in a supportive environment, right? A supportive environment implies a positive attitude towards every child’s needs, and a teacher who is well-trained and motivated to be able to support the learning of all the children there, perhaps even pairing them to facilitate the process. This is the vision that we have: one class for all. We know that this is a long journey, but the idea is that we want to create schools that are disability and child-friendly, where diversity is valued.

On the positive impact that inclusive education has made in schools

I think one of the things that has been really great is the way we’ve been able to galvanise support from the mainstream education movement, which is partly because we’ve joined that movement in many ways and tried to change it within. We have been able to galvanise support within the mainstream education sector. We have worked with multiple organisations that have signed up for the school for action with an effort to invest in disability-inclusive schools in 2017. I am proud of that work.

Our work on early pre-school education and building supportive home and community environments has also been important.

We have also been working on issues around technology, so we can get more people to invest in accessible technology for people with disabilities. This is very crucial in the Covid-19 world that we live in, to recognise the value of technology in facilitating learning and connectivity.

Despite the complex settings, we are trying to establish an online, accessible library and look at accessible publishing and technologies for schools. We are already seeing some results because more students have been able to take the examinations and now have access to proper textbooks for the first time in their lives, which is groundbreaking.

Internationally as well, there has been progress. In South Sudan, for example, we worked with the government, and the inclusive education policy has just been signed again, allowing us to do great work with their IDP camps. I also work in northeast India, helping special schools transform to be resource centres for inclusive education, and to support SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) schools in India.

On challenges faced along the way 

I feel like the greatest challenge is that people don’t really believe that inclusive education is even possible. I think this attitude shift is something that we really need to work on. The other challenge is that we are asking people who come from a special needs education framework to champion and lead inclusive education, which is honestly a huge change in outlook that they have to make. In a way, we have to reimagine our entire education system, including how we teach in a classroom, in a way that meets everyone’s needs.

Our education systems are built in that way where we measure talent and success merely based on standards of eloquence or mathematical ability. We don’t even give opportunities to children who are good at sports or art or any other areas out there. We never give kids a chance to develop their full potential, because our education system is like machinery; it’s like a factory. This accelerated learning approach doesn’t look at the spiritual and emotional development of a child and all their talents. How we marry notions of inclusion and equity with a competitive market is the greatest challenge.

On what is missing within the mainstream inclusive education discourse

We have to constantly redo, unlearn, relearn new approaches when it comes to education. What I feel hasn’t been done enough is how we support parents to motivate their children and develop growth mindsets in their own children, so they can be good self-advocates and build resilience. We’ve not done enough work to train young people to demand their own rights and make suggestions about how they should learn, and what helps them study better. Children need to claim their agency and self-efficacy so they can have a say in their own education.

Secondly, we expect special needs specialists who worked at universities or teacher training colleges to instantly switch to inclusion. So now they are employing special needs approaches in an inclusive setting of 40-80 children and there’s a mismatch because those strategies don’t necessarily work in such a big setup. I believe there’s a need for these professors or specialists to take a deep dive into inclusion and come up with strategies that are feasible for large inclusive classrooms. We need strategies that don’t create even more exclusion, like when you take a child out of a class, or create a special unit for all the children with disabilities in the mainstream schools. Honestly, these methods are all just new forms of exclusion.

On ways to build truly inclusive learning ecosystems

If you want to create an inclusive school, you have to ask: Who are learners? What are their needs? What can our school offer? What help do we need? What next?

Inclusive education is not just about having children with disabilities in school; even a school with bullies is not inclusive. It is really about creating a school that is child-friendly, where children feel welcomed. All children are special and all children have needs. Children’s ability to concentrate can be affected by loss, grief, sickness, etc., as well. If there are patch-up classes for everybody, then in those classes, maybe the child with the disability would not seem so unusual. There should be these support systems for all children, that every child should have access to. So, I think it’s really important that we look at the population and circumstances of children in the school and accordingly address the barriers they face.

For me, it’s just surface-level when you say, “Oh, inclusion is part of an accessible school with a ramp!” where not a single child needs a ramp, right? In the same school, there is poor lighting and most of the children can’t see very well. I think that there’s been a misinterpretation of what inclusive education is. They think it’s about ramps and white canes, and I think we really need to peel it back. It’s about making a school that is fit and supporting every child. That’s what we need to do.

On what belonging means to her

I think the jargon and the language of our inclusive education have alienated people in many ways. It made them forget about common sense and good ways of being.

When I was in school, we had children in our class who we would classify as having autism, some with intellectual disabilities, some with dyslexia. There were older learners in my class as well. In my fifth grade, which was the last year of primary school, there were two 18-year old children! But the thing is, the teachers didn’t know any better. They were teaching those children simply because they were in the class. They didn’t think that anyone didn’t belong. That’s why I really like the name of your organisation, ‘Belongg’. Our teachers found a way to teach all of us, regardless of our challenges. I went to a regular school. But I couldn’t see very well, so the teacher just suggested, “Okay, she can’t see what’s on the board, so maybe she sits next to someone and copies it.” There wasn’t a notion that these children should go to a special needs teacher. There was no such thing at that stage, right? Because they were teachers and committed to teaching every child. This is what we need to go back to.

On stakeholders and their role in shaping inclusive education

A school principal, a teacher, a parent — everybody has a role. Even the security guard at a school has a role to play, because they’re often the first person that a child sees to be warm and welcoming, with a nice smile. That really sets the tone of the day. We often say that inclusive education’s main stakeholder or implementor is the education ministry. However, the fact is that everybody has a role to play to make sure that families have enough money, resources or the social protection they need, to make sure they’re not making the difficult decision of not sending one of their kids to school.

When it comes to missing stakeholders, I think that we’ve often undermined or not really elevated the voices of parents of children with disabilities. Think about it, who makes a decision about the child’s schooling? It’s the parent. And as soon as you make the decision around a child’s schooling, if you are going for advice to a disabled people’s organisation, it’s like you’re saying this child is different from any other, because you don’t go to “The Society of Blonde People” to find out about the educational needs of blonde children! It’s just a human characteristic, a disability. And we’re forgetting the normal, natural person that makes a decision, that advocates for the child’s rights, is a parent. Parents are also overwhelmed by so much different information, that I feel if I could change things now, I’d maybe want to focus more on the empowerment of parents. Coming from an organisation originally started by parents, who advocated for inclusive education in South Africa, they were, honestly, the loveliest people to work with, and we managed to create some legitimate changes in the system.

Her message for inclusive educators across the world

I think the advice that I’d give would be the advice that someone else just gave me. You need to appreciate the small successes, because it’s really easy to get disillusioned. At the same time, you need to find a way to balance that with being bold and courageous, and still pushing the boundary. Because for many of us, who are so committed to inclusive education, it’s often not a very satisfying journey. Because there are always going to be many barriers and naysayers.

I think keeping in touch with people who are working for the same cause is really important, because everyone needs support, especially the ones that are trying to fight the good fight.

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