Most of us would find it hard to picture a childhood without school. For as long as we can remember, going to school has been taken for granted as a normal part of growing up. Education and childhood are often seen as two inextricably linked concepts ‒ which is just as it should be, for as established by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), every child is inherently entitled to an education. Yet, in spite of the numerous existing policies and legislations that demand all children have equal access to learning, there still exists a vulnerable group of children who are habitually denied this right ‒ the differently-abled.
As we pointed out in a previous article, differently-abled children are nearly always have to face stigma, and countless social, cultural, financial, pedagogical, and attitudinal barriers are known to make it difficult ‒ and sometimes nearly impossible ‒ to gain access to quality education. However, it is explicitly conveyed by the UNCRPD (the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) that:
- Differently-abled children are entitled to all the fundamental freedoms and rights afforded to other children.
- Differently-abled children are entitled to an inclusive and quality education on equal basis with other children.
- Differently-abled children are entitled to any extra support they might need to facilitate their education
Education is a fundamental right, which means that it is vital for the very survival of human existence and social development. The concept of inclusive education aims to guarantee differently-abled children this right. All the same, while the advantages of inclusion are clear, many educators, academics, and even parents have mixed feelings about it.
What Is Inclusive Education?
Unless you have a connection of some sort to an education sector or a special needs child, there is a good chance that you are unfamiliar with inclusive education and what it’s all about.
The concept of inclusive education involves the mainstreaming of differently-abled children in a regular school or classroom, with the aim of providing them with opportunities and experiences equal to that of their ‘normal’ peers. Simply put, it is the idea that children with special needs should attend school and take part in classroom activities just like any other child without special needs.
The principle stems from the rationale established by UNESCO’s Salamanca Statement, namely that every child has unique characteristics, interests, abilities and learning needs, and therefore education systems should be designed and implemented to take into account the wide diversity of these characteristics and needs. However, there is an existing perception that special needs children should be treated differently and kept separately, and inclusion remains a much-debated and complicated issue.
How inclusive is Sri Lanka’s education system?
With an impressive literacy rate of 92% and primary school enrolment rate of 93%, ours is a country which has always placed particular importance on education. Sri Lanka has also had a long history of providing support for differently-abled children; the practice of integrated education dates as far back as the late 1960’s, and the country’s policies on disability are completely supportive of inclusion. However, though the Compulsory Education Ordinance makes it obligatory for all children from the ages 5 to 16 to attend school, studies reveal that only a small percentage of the school-aged differently-abled children actually attend school. In fact, a UNICEF survey on Sri Lankan adults with disability revealed that only 35% of those with intellectual disability and 48% of those with speech disability had acquired some degree of schooling when they were children.
So why is this the case?
Speaking to Roar, Malathi Kahandaliyanage, consultant special educator and behaviour therapist explains that though many schools in Sri Lanka practice inclusive education, most of them are not geared to accommodate the different needs of differently-abled children. “This is mainly because our education system is not based on child-centered learning. We also don’t have the necessary resources and infrastructure to accommodate their different needs,” she said.
These “different needs” vary according to the nature of each child. For instance:
- Some children on the autism spectrum may learn better with the help of the visuals. They might also need instructions to be broken down into simple steps to achieve learning goals.
- Some children may need sensory breaks to regulate their needs ‒ which can be seen as a disruption to the classroom environment.
- Children with cerebral palsy may need wheelchair accessibility or adaptive devices to communicate.
- Children with Down’s syndrome may need more time to complete activities.
- Children with learning disabilities may benefit with oral examination rather than written test papers.
According to Kahandaliyanage, our education system is geared to achieving results through standardised tests rather than assessing the strengths of an individual student. Because of this, schools find it challenging to accept children who look, learn, and present themselves differently.
Even those students who are lucky enough to gain acceptance into a school are often segregated from other students in pull-out classes or special units attached to the school. While Special Education Units are a stepping stone towards full inclusion, they defeat the whole idea of inclusive education, which is providing differently-abled children with the integrated environment they need.
Other barriers to inclusivity include a lack of awareness, as well as the attitudes and perceptions of parents, teachers, principals and other stakeholders. There is also a significant lack of training, support services, and material for the most essential components of inclusive education ‒ teachers. In fact, research has revealed that many teachers feel incompetent and unprepared for the task of teaching special needs children in the classroom.
“Training of the teachers should be an ongoing process,” says Kahandaliyanage, adding that it is imperative to value special education teachers within schools, as they often go unrecognised or find themselves looked down on. She also points out that while schools are bound by country policies to accommodate the needs of all children, it is not uncommon for parents seeking admission for their differently-abled children to be turned away. “Regulations regarding the admission of children with special needs should not rely solely on the principal’s discretion,” she explains. “School authorities need to be held accountable and responsible for implementing the inclusive education policy.”
Why Inclusive Education?
Or as many proponents prefer to ask: why not? After all, special needs children are children too. They too need to feel a sense of belonging, to be able to learn and play and grow in a nurturing environment where every child is made to feel welcome, rather than being shunted to a corner and isolated because they are different.
Properly implemented, inclusive education can equip a special needs child with the social skills they will need to later navigate through life. By interacting with their peers and forming friendships, there is a decline in the sense of alienation and invisibility they are usually afflicted with. In a country like Sri Lanka, where stigma and culturally-induced misconceptions run rampant, inclusive settings in a school can also encourage all children ‒ with and without special needs ‒ to learn to embrace differences and shake off prejudice.
Education is one of the most effective ways to break the seemingly endless cycle of disempowerment and stigma faced by special needs children. Without a proper education, many of them are condemned to a lack of self-sufficiency, unemployment, or worse, lifelong institutionalisation. As certain academics argue, inclusive education does have its stumbling blocks; but it is also a crucial first step towards nurturing the open-minded and diverse society the world so desperately needs.