Sebastian García is eight years old and lives in La Paz, Bolivia. His parents have long fought for him to go to a school where the teachers understand his needs. Sebastian has autism and has been exposed to violence and discrimination all his life. The family has visited and tested more than ten special schools, but no one has wanted to receive him because the teachers and principals do not know how to treat a child with autism.
200 km away, in the city of Cochabamba, Emanuel Yucra also lives for eight years. He has a hearing impairment and his family can tell of similar experiences. Both doctors and teachers told Emanuel's parents that he would never be able to learn anything, so he was not allowed to start school. The family learned for themselves what Emanuel's disability really means.
Children with disabilities are discriminated against
Although education is a fundamental right enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, many children with disabilities in Bolivia share the experience of not being able to attend school. An outdated school system, lack of knowledge and trained staff contribute to the discrimination to which children Sebastian and Emanuel have been subjected.
Most countries, including Bolivia, have made some investments in special schools for children with disabilities. Experience shows, however, that segregation in special schools has led to a new form of exclusion.
- When children with disabilities are educated separately, it makes integration into society more difficult. Everyone benefits from learning with and from each other, says Margot Vina Pelaez, professor and principal of a school that works with a form of inclusive education.
Today, therefore, several experts advocate "inclusive education" instead of special schools. Inclusive education usually means that children with different conditions go to school together. But in many countries, opposition to including children with disabilities in mainstream education is still strong. In developing countries, which often lack quality in school in general, inclusive education is still a concept that few know the meaning of.
CHANGES ARE REQUIRED ON SEVERAL LEVELS
In Bolivia, a lot of work still remains before they have succeeded in creating a common school where the teaching is adapted to the different needs of the children. As knowledge of various disabilities is still low, inclusion work in schools is made more difficult. Both politicians, school and care staff 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 fight for several years to get their son the right diagnosis. Doctors long thought he was deaf before they realized he had autism. When no one knows what disability a child has, it is difficult for teachers to know how to adapt the teaching and it may be impossible to find a school that can meet the child's needs in the right way.
Since no special school accepted him, he eventually had to start in a preschool for "ordinary" children. The hope was that the interaction with the other children would help him. But the staff locked him in his own room.
His father Franklin García says that Sebastian used to cry for several hours after they picked him up from preschool.
- The staff lacked both knowledge and human warmth, says Franklin García.
Pilot schools must show how inclusive education can work in practice
In recent years, there has been some positive change. New laws have been enacted that are more clearly focused on inclusive education, which has partly affected how people in the education sector relate to children and young people with disabilities. Mirta Sejas from the Ministry of Education says that the new legal texts have led to changes in the curriculum and that new courses have been established in inclusive teaching methods and inclusive pedagogy.
- Teaching in special schools and at various day centers should now be seen as a method of approaching an inclusive education. Specially trained teams have also been appointed to develop criteria and evaluate which children with disabilities should go to special school and which should be integrated into the regular schools, says Mirta Sejas, head of the department for inclusive education at the school authority in Cochabamba.
Margot Vina Pelaez is a professor and principal of a special school that accepts people with various disabilities and also supports 900 children and young people with disabilities who go to the regular school. She says that her school receives support from the government to be able to be used as a pilot model for how inclusive education can be designed and function in practice.
- But the challenges are many. Several teachers are opposed to the changes at the same time as some parents overprotect their children and do not see their potential, she says.
Educators with knowledge and the right skills mean everything
However, Emanuel's parents are among those who have fought for the school to enable Emanuel to develop based on his own conditions. And their struggle has paid off. Today he has a teacher who on his own initiative has taken various courses to better meet his needs in the classroom.
- Everything has gotten so much better since he got this teacher. She is not like the other teachers but understands how to deal with Emanuel, which has meant that he has learned a lot, says Emanuel's sister Rocío Yucra.
Sebastian's parents have also found something that works for their son. Today he attends a day center run by the organization DESPERTARES. There he has started to feel better and develop, which is noticeable in that he can now express his feelings more verbally.
- It is impossible to describe the happiness I feel when my son rushes towards me, hugs me and says he loves me, says his mother Patricia Rojas and smiles.
DESPETARES runs a project together with MyRight's member organization Grunden where they work, among other things, to influence the policy and implementation of a more inclusive school. In parallel, they also run a day center where the children and their parents learn things that increase their interaction and develop the children so that more of them can start school after a while.
- To some extent, there has been a positive development in Bolivia in recent years, says Isabel Vallejo, project manager at DESPERTARES. But often it sounds better than it really is. The government currently funds certain courses and educations that will increase teachers' competence and ability to teach in a way that includes more children, but in practice it may be a three-day education, which is far too little to achieve change, she says.
Isabel says that a couple of weeks ago she visited a school that claims to work with inclusive teaching methods. What she saw were children with disabilities who sat at the back of the classrooms and did not participate in teaching at all.
In an inclusive society, more people can contribute and develop
Inclusive education with acceptable quality is a major challenge, not least for poor countries where knowledge about various disabilities is still low. And perhaps the right to education in some form must sometimes take precedence over the requirement for total inclusion in school. But to reduce prejudices and negative attitudes towards people with disabilities and to increase participation in society, it is important to continue to develop the school into a place where more needs are made visible and given space and more people have the opportunity to contribute and develop.
Because as Nelson Mandela said; "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world."
Text and image: Sergio Reviera