Progress to Inclusive Education in South East Asia: What are the issues?

Richard Rieser reports back from the 2nd International Conference on Special Education

By Richard Rieser, World of Inclusion

I recently returned from Sarawak, Malaysia, attending and speaking at ICSE 2017 (2nd International Conference on Special Education), held under the aegis of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Regional Centre for Special Education. This represents 11 countries in the region. The Conference was held under the theme Access and Engagement and was to implement the SEAMO SEN mission:

“Providing access and engagement for children with Special Educational Needs must be given priority and emphasis by addressing opportunities and barriers such as diverse learners’ needs, designing and implementing accommodative curriculum suited to the needs of children and responsive curriculum strategies in teaching and learning.

“The SEAMEO 7 Priority Areas:

  1. Early Childhood Care and Education
  2. Addressing Barriers to Inclusion
  3. Resiliency in the Face of Emergencies
  4. Promoting Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET)
  5. Revitalising Teacher Education
  6. Promoting Harmonisation and Higher Education and Research and
  7. Adopting the 21st Century Curriculum form the basis for this conference.

These areas necessitate the urgent needs to provide and engage children with special educational needs in educational settings that are meaningful and inclusive. Quality education and support services would ensure children with special educational needs engage in educational settings that stimulate their holistic growth and give them the necessary skills to live independently and contribute to the betterment their lives.”

The first thing that shocked me about the conference was how deeply ingrained was the concept of Special Educational Needs (SEN). It seemed the thinking and practice of SEN was the bedrock of the region’s thinking and that inclusion of disabled people and their rights were a veneer placed on top.
Though some progress was reported towards more disabled children being in mainstream in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Lao, Myanmar and Cambodia in every case there was still a very strong distinction between special needs teachers and mainstream teachers. There was still a reliance on special schools for sensory impaired students and those with severe physical impairments. When most speakers talked of inclusion they were talking of students with mild to moderate impairments on the autistic spectrum, ADHD and learning difficulty. But with the exception of the small and prosperous Brunei Darussalam, which has no special schools as a conscious choice following the Salamanca Conference in 1994, and Timor Leste that does not have special schools as until recently it was a far flung outpost of Indonesia; there is an underlying reliance on special schools and special educators.

Apart from the obvious contradiction with signing and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Treaty and the Sustainable Development Goals which have quality inclusive education for all people with disabilities written into them, what are the problems with this approach?

Dr Yasmin Hussein, the organiser of the Conference and Director of SEAMO SEN, ‘stressed that it was pivotal for special children to be given the rights to live, to learn, to grow and to have equal opportunities to lead their lives.’

Continually referring to children and young people with a whole range of impairments as ‘special’ invokes the old paradigm of the individual or medical model and leads to solutions based on charity and individual responses rather than a rights based approach that views inclusion as a social and political issue. The organisers of the conference would argue they are doing this and indeed there was much evidence of initiatives of conducting community-based events to increase awareness and acceptance of individuals with disability in society, setting up centres throughout the region (already 21 to which this year four more will be added) specifically meant to undertake training and research programmes in Special Education. SEAMEO SEN has been promoting awareness and the importance of including disability issues and concerns in all specialist centres. Prasert Tepanart, Deputy Director of SEAMO SEN, said “With the current global education direction, the education of the most marginalised and vulnerable group especially children with disabilities has been the focus of all programmes and activities in all SEAMEO centres…. Education is the momentum that directs changes and transformation of mindset and attitude and eventually the history of a nation. With education, the future of marginalised groups especially children with disabilities can be changed and improved.”

The problem is that the transformation of education systems to inclusive has to be across the whole education system. Mainstream teachers must have mandatory training and all colleagues in schools need regular training on inclusion.

When we drafted Article 24 of the UNCRPD in 2005/2006 in New York, we specifically left the words special educational needs out because it ideologically stands for disabled people’s isolation, segregation and mistreatment and not our empowerment and inclusion. Having engaged with 650 colleagues from the region and beyond on the issue of developing inclusive education in South East Asia it seems the continual use of ‘Special’ and ‘Special Educational Needs’ is a real barrier to progress towards inclusion in the region. This is more than semantics.

Whatever the decrees, laws and treaties say, sticking with the SEN model undermines the paradigm shift to rights strongly endorsed in General Comment No.4 of the UNCRPD Committee. It signals business as usual to educators. That there is someone else with expertise and they are the people responsible for educating disabled children. It also reinforces age old prejudice and myths in the community towards disabled children. In the end sticking with the ‘special’ label is disempowering. There were several speakers putting forward a strong disability and rights perspective at the conference. However it feels to me that the normative waters of SEN have swallowed these contributions and the change that is desperately needed will not occur. There are not anywhere near enough special schools and it means that with the exception of some of the smaller and richer countries in the region such as Singapore, Brunei and possibly Malaysia the vast majority of disabled children are still not in school, probably half of 3.48 million. Inclusion and rights needs to be at the centre of a root and branch overhaul of the education system. The old SEN model left behind by colonial masters needs jettisoning. There will be many vested interests who will oppose this approach, but is the only one that will deliver full inclusive education in South East Asia.



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