First step towards inclusive education

Mother with two children.

Inclusive education is a major challenge, not least for poor countries, where knowledge of the various disabilities remains low. In Bolivia, a wide range of changes are still needed before children with disabilities will have full access to education. But small changes in the right direction are bringing hope.

Sebastian García is eight years old and lives in La Paz in Bolivia. His parents have long fought to get him into a school where the teachers understand his needs. Sebastian has autism and has experienced violence and discrimination throughout his life. The family has visited and tried out over 10 special schools, but none have wanted to take him, as the teachers and headteachers don’t know how to deal with an autistic child.

Emanuel Yucra is also eight years old, and he lives 200 km away, in the city of Cochabamba. He has impaired hearing and his family tell a similar story. Doctors and teachers all told Emanuel’s parents that he would never be able to learn anything, which is why he wasn’t allowed to attend school. The family had to find out for themselves what Emanuel’s disability actually meant.

Discrimination against children with disabilities

Although education is a fundamental right, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, many children with disabilities in Bolivia share the experience of being denied access to schooling. An outdated school system and a lack of knowledge and trained staff contribute to the discrimination that children like Sebastian and Emanuel have suffered.

Most countries, including Bolivia, have made certain investments in special schools for children with disabilities. Experience shows, however, that segregation in special schools has led to a new form of exclusion.

– Educating children with disabilities separately makes social integration more difficult. Everyone gains from learning with and from each other, says Margot Vina Pelaez, professor and headteacher at a school that operates a form of inclusive education.

This is why several experts now advocate ‘inclusive education’ instead of special schools. Inclusive education usually means that children with different capabilities go to school together. However, in many countries opposition to including children with disabilities in mainstream schools remains strong. In developing countries, which often have poor quality schooling in general, inclusive education remains a concept that few understand.

Change required on many levels

In Bolivia, a great deal remains to be done if the country is to create joint schooling where the teaching is tailored to the different needs of the children. The continued lack of knowledge about different disabilities remains an obstacle to work on inclusion in schools. Politicians, school staff, care workers and the general public need to understand what different disabilities mean and what needs and rights people with disabilities have.

Sebastian’s parents had to battle for several years for their son to be given the correct diagnosis. For a long time, the doctors thought he was deaf, before they realised he has autism. When no-one knows what disability a child has, it is difficult for the teachers to know how to adapt their teaching and it can be impossible to find a school that is able to properly meet the child’s needs.

Since no special school would take him, eventually he had to start at a preschool for ‘ordinary’ children. The hope was that the interaction with the other children would help him. But the staff shut him in a separate room.

Sebastian with his parents, Franklin and Cristina

His father Franklin García says that Sebastian used to cry for several hours after they fetched him from preschool.

– The staff lacked both knowledge and human warmth, states Franklin.

Pilot schools to show inclusive education at work

Some positive changes have occurred in recent years. New laws have been enacted that have a clearer focus on inclusive education, which has to some extent influenced the attitude of people in the education sector towards children and young people disabilities. Education official Mirta Sejas explains that the new legislation has brought changes to the curriculum, and that new courses in inclusive teaching methods and inclusive pedagogy have been set up.

Mirta Sejas.

Mirta Sejas.

– Teaching in special schools and at various day centres should now be seen as a way of moving towards inclusive education. Specially trained teams have also been put together to work on developing criteria and assessing which children with disabilities should go to specialist school, and which should be integrated into the mainstream schools,” says Mirta Sejas, who is head of the department for inclusive education at the education authority in Cochabamba.

Margot Vina Pelaez is a professor and headteacher of a special school that takes people with various disabilities, and that also supports 900 children and young people with disabilities who go to mainstream school. She relates how her school receives support from the government in its capacity as a pilot model, showing how inclusive education can be structured and can work in practice.

– But there are numerous challenges. Many teachers are resistant to the changes, while at the same time some parents are overprotective towards their children and don’t see their potential, she says.

Teachers with knowledge and the right skills mean everything

Emanuel’s parents, however, are among those who have fought for school to enable Emanuel to develop based on his own circumstances. And their battle has yielded results. He now has a teacher who has attended various courses, on her own initiative, so that she can better meet his needs in the classroom.

– Everything has really improved since he got this teacher. She isn’t like the other teachers – she understands how to approach Emanuel, which means he has learned so much, says Emanuel’s sister, Rocío Yucra.

Sebastian’s parents have also found something that works for their son. He now attends a day centre run by the organisation DESPERTARES. He is much happier and has begun developing, so that he can now express his feelings more verbally.

– I can’t tell you how overjoyed I feel when my son rushes towards me, hugs me and says he loves me, smiles his mother Patricia Rojas.

DESPETARES runs a project together with MyRight’s member organisation Grunden, which involves them working to influence policy and establish more inclusive schooling. Alongside this, they also run a day centre where children and their parents learn things that increase their interaction and develop the children, so that many of them will eventually be able to start school.

– There has certainly been some progress in Bolivia in recent years, says Isabel Vallejo, project manager at DESPERTARES. But often it all sounds rather better than it is in reality. The government now funds some training courses to improve teachers’ expertise and ability to teach in a way that includes more children, but in practice it might be a three-day course at best, which is far too little to achieve any real change.

Isabel recounts how, a couple of weeks ago, she visited a school that claims to apply inclusive teaching methods. What she saw was children with disabilities sitting right at the back of the classroom and not taking part in the lesson at all.

An inclusive society allows more people to contribute and develop

Inclusive education of an acceptable quality is a major challenge, not least for poor countries, where knowledge of the various disabilities remains low. And perhaps the right to some form of education might sometimes have to come before total inclusion in schools. But in order to reduce prejudice and negative attitudes towards people with disabilities, and to increase participation in society, it is important to continue developing schools as a place where more needs are accepted and taken into account, and more people have the opportunity to contribute and develop.

Because, as Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Sergio Reviera