Deepmala Pandey, a primary school principal from Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly, has been instrumental in getting over 800 disabled students enrolled in schools. She is supported by 400 teachers.
Supreme Court Justice D Y Chandrachud has called on the government and private entities to work towards a more just world for people with disabilities while noting the lack of accessibility for them in public and other spaces.
Addressing a gathering at Professor Shamnad Basheer Memorial Lecture on ‘Making Disability Rights Real: Addressing Accessibility & More’, Justice Chandrachud noted, “Government or private entities must ensure that laws and policies are being complied with. This is of foremost importance. In our individual capacities, the least we can do is accord persons with disabilities the respect they deserve and treat them as equals (according to a news report in Indian Express).”
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Towards this cause, Deepmala Pandey (35), principal of Dabhaura Primary school in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, has been working for the last five years.
Because of her endeavour, more than 800 students with disabilities have been able to get enrolled in school and this movement that began with one teacher now has the support of over 400 teachers.
Recently, acknowledging the selfless work that Deepmala has been doing, Prime Minister Modi also made a mention of her exemplary work during his Mann ki Baat episode.
‘Teaching is both challenging and rewarding.’
Speaking to The Better India, she says, “I have always been interested in teaching. I enjoy the company of children and feel teaching is a great way to give back to society and make a meaningful difference. However, teaching is not something that is easy and comes naturally to everyone.”
Deepmala started teaching in 2009 and says, “The schools where I have taught have always been in areas that have remained backwards. So, in a sense, the work we do can be considered as social service, just that we get a salary for doing it.” In 2015, she was promoted and moved to Dabhaura primary school as the principal.
In 2018, three years after taking over as principal a student named Anmol entered the school and changed the course of things for Deepmala. “Anmol came to me four years ago and was in a sense the harbinger of change. He changed my perspective on teaching. Anmol is a child with severe learning disabilities and just being able to navigate with him was a challenge in the beginning.”
She continues, “Given the learning impairment he faced, integrating him with the rest of the class immediately was not an option at all. It had to be a gradual process. For the first few weeks, he would just follow me around and not communicate at all. Then we started using non-verbal cues to communicate and very slowly we got him to enter a classroom.”
What’s amazing is that Anmol continues to be a student at the school and is currently in Class 5.
Anmol’s mother, Munni Devi (39) says, “It gives me so much happiness to see Anmol in school. I have four daughters and one son. While all the others were enrolled in school only Anmol was at home. The growth that I have witnessed in him since he started coming here is phenomenal. He is so much more self-reliant now and confident now.”
She goes on, “I celebrate every small victory and milestone of his. From being able to operate a mobile phone to communicate in his own way what he needs and likes. These are big wins for him and us.”
Adding to this, Deepmala says, “Anmol is the recipient of a government scholarship. When the form for the same arrived at school I was so thrilled to see Anmol sign it. Usually, in such cases, either the teachers or the parents sign the form on the child’s behalf.”
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Bringing the teacher community together
Deepmala realised early on that the push to enrol students with disabilities would have to come from teachers. Thus, in April 2018 she started by creating a WhatsApp group consisting of teachers from Bareilly. Having started with a handful of teachers that online community has grown multi-fold today.
“On the group, there is a lot of information that we circulate on inclusive education, examples of the best classroom practices to follow, activities for better inclusion and also awareness-building content. All this is to ensure that we can accommodate every child in our classroom” she says.
She says that while teachers would often attend workshops and seminars on inclusive education, it was only when implemented that one really understood how it worked. “Theory and practical applicability are two different things. Therefore, we needed to enrol children to be able to teach them and make a difference,” she says.
She also launched a campaign which she has aptly named – ‘One Teacher One Call.’ She says, “This campaign ensures that each teacher calls at least one other teacher and explains why it is so important for children with disabilities not to be deprived of admission to regular schools, and that there is a Central Act to support such enrolments.”
While the campaign did hit a roadblock during the lockdowns, when schools remained shut, the gusto with which the teachers worked did not reduce.
“Our endeavour is that we get every child to school. The onus of finding ways to teach them lies solely on us – the educators. To see an increase in the number of students getting enrolled is truly rewarding,” she concludes.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)