December 2014

An Interview with Dr Hemachandran Karah

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Dr Hemachandran Karah is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Karah works in the fields of disability studies and medical humanities. Following his doctoral research at Cambridge on the writings of Ved Mehta, Karah has been working on a book manuscript concerning the narratives of blind culture. In the long run, Karah is expecting to contribute towards academic debates in the areas of disability, health, and medicine. Here, in an interview with Manjari Chaturvedi and Chandra Nisha Singh, he shares his thoughts on the idea of disability pedagogy eventually moving towards a brainstorming session on newer horizons in the field.


Manjari Chaturvedi (Manjari): Hema, tell us about your early days as a student. How did you learn English following your school education in Tamil?

Hemachandran Karah (Hema): It was indeed a messy affair to begin with. Telugu and Tamil were my primary languages of thinking, playing, and breathing. While one spoke Telugu at home, the world of learning opened up solely in Tamil. This is not to mention the amount of rote learning in Tamil one has to comply with during the waking hours.

When I joined Loyola College (formerly Madras, and now Chennai), I chose to read English Literature. This was in a sense taking the English language bull by its horn. (We all laughed!) But, actually it was not that difficult; thanks to bazar guidebooks! I used to depend upon them heavily. Interestingly, they all had Tamil and English summaries and cursory reviews of the novels of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and what not.  So, one can get a feel of a novel with a detailed vernacular review. They also offered me a cultural translation of a British world which was so far away by way of language, culture, and time. Moreover, these guidebooks are intelligent templates of our examination-driven academia.  All one has to do is to commit the template contents into memory. The templates host paraphrases, themes based Q and A sections, synonyms and antonyms of a hard-hitting words cluster, and even commentaries on historical context of a literary masterpiece. Probably, one can claim that the bazar guidebooks were an erstwhile Wikipedia portal in themselves. Obviously, many of us helped ourselves with a good many of them to crack a seemingly advanced undergrad course in English. On the spoken English front, my first port of call was always The BBC. Those days, imitating the accent of a BBC reporter was my fond hobby (you should ask my sister about this!). Of course, the BBC stuff did not help me with written English. My teachers, both at tertiary level and thereafter, told me that my writing was sketchy, illogical, and completely unorganized. Then, and now, we haven’t evolved structures beyond a classroom setting that can cater to pupils who are in a similar situation. In inclusive education, the main issue is not about how to make books accessible; say audio and braille formats. The concern is the starting point itself. It is like this: In an unequal marathon setting like ours, students start at various distances. One who has a better cultural capital begins the race already much ahead of others. Some really lag behind so much that their starting point in the marathon is far behind the track area itself. We need to understand this first before talking about disability pedagogy, and the like.

That said, I started much late for a career in writing. Writing is a different game altogether. One can deploy camouflages in the spoken domain, and not so easily in the written medium.

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Inclusive Practices

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Two decades ago, the UNESCO supported World Conference on Special Needs education led to the creation of the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. The key premise of the action plan was to encourage schools to “accommodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions.” The statement further states that children who are “disabled… and…from other disadvantaged or marginalised areas or groups” need to be catered to by the school system (Salamanca Framework, 1994). Inclusive education is thus an umbrella term that encompasses educational practices across institutions that are sensitive and responsive to diverse populations of children. 

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