Disability, Difference and Inclusive Classroom: Some Challenges


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This article discusses the problems that persons with physical and cognitive challenges confront on account of exclusivist attitudes in academic institutions.  It focuses in particular on the classroom situation and attempts to bring to the fore how unpreparedness of teachers and students, the absence of adaptive teaching curriculum and teaching techniques, the absence of empathy and active listening, the unavailability of access to adequate learning material can lead to alienation of the students with physical and cognitive difference which ultimately leads to their complete withdrawal.

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The disruptions caused by the unprecedented time of Covid-19 have brought about some structural changes in the established orders of almost all the institutions including academic ones. These disruptions have also brought to the fore the glaring inequities in access, distribution and allocation of the resources, and the callous attitudes directed towards marginalised individuals or groups. Some students with physical and cognitive challenges as suggested by many research conducted during this pandemic really had a tough time in coping with online teaching (Sudirman Nasir , Hasanuddin Becky, Claire Spivakovsky , Raffaella Cresciani, Report published by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled). This was because it did not suit their ways of perceiving or grasping information and knowledge or it did not take into account the necessity of providing accommodative and conducive environment. However, some students benefitted from this new strand, as their needs were taken care of by their care takers or family members at home. Both the situations draw our attention to the fact that the academic institutions in general are oblivious to providing inclusive environment in the classroom. They shirk their responsibilities in order to refrain from obstacles or challenges, or they are not well equipped with the ideas, strategies or resources of imparting lessons in a way that they are adaptive and accommodative in nature. It is to be noted that the pandemic has not brought about a complete rupture in existing institutional structures. It has provided us with a significant vantage point to assess the existing inequalities and unjustness that are mired in our individual and collective attitudes, cultures, institutional policies, strategies, schemes, organisations and so on. It is true that the absence of level playing ground for marginal groups and communities and lack of adequate infrastructures of care or the lack of understanding their diverse needs emerge as one of the biggest impediments in the way of shaping one’s career, getting access to various resources and leading a dignified life. Nonetheless, sincere endeavours, collaborative efforts of the authorities and stake holders, academic engagements and civil societies and mentorship can contribute to reducing the inequities of access prevalent across groups and communities. This article discusses the problems that persons with physical and cognitive challenges confront on account of exclusivist attitudes in academic institutions.  It focuses in particular on the classroom situation and attempts to bring to the fore how unpreparedness of teachers and students, the absence of adaptive teaching curriculum and teaching techniques, the absence of empathy and active listening, the unavailability of access to adequate learning material can lead to alienation of the students with physical and cognitive difference which ultimately leads to their complete withdrawal. The article by taking recourse to personal anecdotes and small stories makes an attempt to diagnose the issues or concerns that come in the way of achieving inclusive environment and attempts to suggest some ways, the implementation of which may make the students with physical and cognitive differences feel that they are an integral part of academic institutions.

The daunting memories resurface in my mind when I revisit my learning experiences in a typical classroom where I, the only different person i.e., visually impaired was held responsible for figuring out the ways that can ensure my involvement and participation and restore lost interest. Fascinated by the idea of learning a foreign language, I had enrolled myself in a foreign language course. After initial thirty minutes of introduction and informal interaction, I began to feel disconnected and began to lose interest. The energetic and excited voices around did not prove to be contagious. As direct method was mandated, the teacher used only the target language as medium of instruction. She did make use of meta-linguistic tools such as gestures, mime, pictures etc to help learners infer, decode and proceed towards meaning making process. The over emphasis on the use of the visual means and a big no to the use of Hindi or English curtailed the options of learning that suited my need. My inactiveness and disinterestedness were mistaken for my dumbness. I was advised to drop the course. However, the efforts put in by my cousin at home who was also enrolled in the same course proved to be a saviour. Once I was acquainted with the basic vocabulary, I managed to grasp most of the things taught in the class despite the use of gestures, pictures and mimes.

The above narrated personal anecdote helps identify the persisting lacunas in teaching and learning environment and the ignorance regarding bodily and cognitive needs. The first factor that hampers teaching and learning is the rigidity of approach, method or techniques of imparting a lesson. When a teacher or a mentor prepares for the class, he or she takes into consideration a homogenous group which is able bodied, attentive, and possesses a lowered affective filter. His or her ideas regarding homogeneity fail in paying adequate attention to the different needs caused by bodily and cognitive differences. For instance, a student with visual impairment is likely to use auditory skills in making sense. A student with hearing loss or hard of hearing will be able to connect if pictures or diagrams are provided. A student with learning disability may not be able to keep pace with his or her peers and he or she may require a different arsenal of tools for learning.  It is a reality that teachers or mentors are bound by the rigidity of the institutional structure or curriculum, However, he or she can allot some time for individualised mentorship. This practice may enable mentors to know their students more and they would be able to think beyond the stereotypes pertaining to students’ disability. It might eventually encourage students to open up about their difficulties and how their mentors can help them in rendering the classroom environment conducive to their diverse needs. Here, I cannot resist from citing a personal anecdote. In one of the M.Phil. coursework classes, we were introduced to a new teacher who had just joined then. She interacted with us for a while. After the class, she called me in her room and without asking any question related to my visual impairment, asked: “In what form should I send you the readings?” Her question made me comfortable talking about accessibility related issues. Thus, the teacher’s understanding and the knowledge of the students’ diverse needs or his or her preparedness allow the scope for reasonable accommodation or adaptability in the class comprising students with diverse bodily needs and neuro diversity.

The societies are governed by the discourses of normalcy and these discourses deem certain bodies or behaviours as abnormal or deviant. In Douglas C. Baynton’s view, the natural and the normal are the ways of achieving universal good and right. However, they are at the same time the ways of establishing social hierarchy that justify the denial of rights to certain individuals or groups (18). Those who are conceived to be having deviant bodies or cognitive capabilities, become a victim of societal stigma. In Lerida Coleman Brown’s words: “Stigma is a response to dilemma of differences. stigma represents a continuum of undesired differences that depend upon many factors” (146). Moreover, the affective responses such as repulsion and fear stem from the encounter with stigmatized bodies. This phenomenon discourages students from revealing their invisible disability, as the fear of being discriminated against on the ground of their difference looms large on their psyche. Moreover, the students with invisible disabilities are apprehensive about making their disability public due to the intrinsic power dynamics underlying the teacher-student relationship. Hence, the students cannot keep with the regular pace of the class and are found to be less attentive. Their deficit of attention is likely to be perceived as their misbehaviour and sometimes they fall prey to teachers’ or mentors’ ridicule. Thus, the individuals who ought to be provided with individualised counselling, and sensitive and empathetic listening, are kept away from even the minimal access and suitable resources. It is not an easy task for teachers or mentors to learn students’ invisible disability without any intimation. However, the teachers can motivate students to speak out their mind, or create an environment where students are encouraged to divulge their difficulties or problems that they face during the teaching learning process. Moreover, the active listening on teachers’ or mentors’ part can do wonders, as it may instil empathy in teachers and may infuse confidence and optimism among students to open about their disability.

The academic institutions are known to be highly competitive in nature. The pressure of performance, cerebral commitment, peer pressure and the uncertainty of the future render students anxious. Moreover, the static ideas regarding success and ability render the academic space highly ableist. In Tobin Sieber’s words: “Ability is the ideological baseline which defines humanness and ability is the supreme indicator of value while judging human actions, thoughts, goals, intentions and desires” ((180). Further, the discourse of ability is shaped by a complex nexus of rigid criteria and parameters for the assessment of the performances. In addition, the preconceived notions about students’ capabilities are capable of influencing teachers, mentors as well as the students or mentees. One such rigid criterion is that of “speed”. The faster one is, the brighter one is likely to be perceived. Speed is often construed as one’s ability or one’s capacity. This rigid criterion does not take into account the material conditions of the individual. It is to be noted that it requires a considerable amount of time in adapting to a system which is not universally designed. Students with special needs spend most of their time grappling with getting accustomed or immune to an unsuitable method or system. For instance, if a teacher presents material or input in the classroom in an inaccessible form, the students will simply be deprived from learning during the class hours. In addition, outside the class, they spend time figuring out the ways through which they can render the material accessible. Thus, they are practically left with little time to read, revise or do assignments. Moreover, some students who belong to lower economic strata struggle a great deal in getting access to suitable material, devices or equipment in a given time, as disability friendly soft wares, instruments or devices are not always provided at affordable price. It should be noted that disability and poverty are intrinsically connected to each other and hence, it is always a mammoth task for them to get access to resources or reach out to those who can assist them in accomplishing the task. Thus, students do not succeed in matching up to the requirement of meeting the set deadline. It further initiates a vicious cycle of low esteem and poor academic performance. If a teacher or a mentor by taking into confidence the authorities or administration creates some scope for flexibility for such students, it may prove to be a great relief to students. Some flexibility on the teacher’s part may enable students to focus on their studies and it may bring an enormous transformation in students’ performance as well as their overall growth.

The disabled people are habituated with being spoken for. They are usually not assigned autonomy. They are often excluded from decision making and are less likely to have the experiences of leadership. Moreover, the absence of level playing ground for recreation activities keeps them away from socialising with their peers. Their impairment is identified as “lack” or weakness. If students with special needs are assigned autonomy and leadership in a heterogenous group or class, it may prove to be a tremendous strategy in achieving the desired goal of inclusion. It can not only ensure inclusion and full participation, but sparks curiosity, zest and optimism, which in turn, contributes to better academic performance and personality development. A personal experience at hand allows me to tease out this point. My excitement and zest new no bounds, when I was nominated as a member of the student council by my teacher at the university. For the first time, I could see and feel myself as an integral part of the institution, as I was involved in the decision-making process which meant for all and not merely for the students with disability. It pushed me to look at myself beyond my disability.

Thus, it can safely be concluded that along with maintaining professional decorum, it is equally important for teachers and mentors to humanize their profession. Active listening, debunking stereotypes, empathetic and compassionate attitude and having an urge to create an inclusive classroom can help mitigate the exclusionist and discriminatory impacts of structural debility.


Baynton, Douglas. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” (17-33). Disability Studies Reader. Taylor Francis Group New York And London, 2013. Print.

Coleman Brown, Lerida. “Stigma: an Enigma Demystified”. Disability Studies Reader. Taylor Francis Group New York And London, 2013. Print.

Siebers, T. “Disability and the Theory of Complex Embodiment-for Identity Politics in a New Register”. Disability Studies Reader. Taylor Francis Group New York And London, 2013. Print.


Dr Zarana Maheshwari is an assistant professor at Centre for Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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