Top: A photo of me on my first day at school...
Do you agree that disabled children should be included in mainstream schools? My guess is that many of you have answered “yes” to that question.
Of course, this is a good thing. It indicates that attitudes towards disabled people have changed since the time when a majority of disabled people were provided education in ‘special’ schools. Yet, do we really understand what ‘inclusive education’ actually means?
A common misconception about inclusive education is that it’s simply a matter of placing a disabled child in a mainstream class. However, while this may enable a few disabled children to get a proper education and develop the skills to function in an adult world, it expects the disabled child to fit in the educational system without taking into account the fact that the child has an impairment. In contrast, inclusion sets out to place the student at the centre of the educational process and thus enable children to attain their maximum educational potential.
As a young disabled boy attending a mainstream Church school, I felt part of the school. While I’m grateful for the teachers and staff who supported me during that time, things would have been different if it wasn’t for the fact that I could keep up with my peers, wasn’t disruptive to the class and my physical impairment permitted me to be more physically active than I am today.
On the other hand, if I had a more severe physical impairment, a profound intellectual impairment or exhibited challenging behaviour, I would have probably been sent off to a special school or denied an education to begin with. n my case, I survived an education based on the principle of integration where it was a matter of sink or swim. If I hadn’t adapted to the system, my future would have been very different.
On the contrary, a truly inclusive educational system would have taken my impairment into account and made it possible for me to be more included in school events that required, say, physical stamina and strength.
In this sense, inclusion is about providing a disabled student with the support he or she needs depending on the impairment. This may range from making sure the school is physically accessible, providing educational resources in alternative formats and supporting the student with a Learning Support Assistant – as well as providing adequate professional involvement if required.
Inclusive education is planning an education that responds to the child’s needs through the development of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) which also involves the child.
Indeed, real inclusion requires that we rethink our approach to education and go beyond the old idea that education is simply a way to prepare children for the world of work.
While preparing our children to contribute to our society through work remains an important function of education, what we gain from the educational process is much greater than that.
We learn to make friends, learn about new people, solve problems and form relationships.
Indeed, education helps us to explore life beyond the confines of our family circle. As a disabled child myself, school helped me meet people whom I might never have met as my impairment often placed limits on how far from home I could go before I got tired.
Indeed, the goal of inclusion is also to provide children with an opportunity to learn about other children and how to live in a society where everyone is different. It provides an opportunity for disabled and non-disabled children to learn about each other and become aware of the fact that while there are differences, they have much in common.
Finally, inclusion helps reduce fear and stigma that existed in the past. It also helps all of us to become aware of our diversity and to appreciate the value of every human being and their right to belong in society.
Unfortunately, as adults, we tend to prefer to include those disabled children who are more easily included or when the support required is minimal, and exclude other disabled children who may need more support and who challenge us when it comes to their inclusion.
Unfortunately, one finds that children who may have a severe intellectual impairment or complex dependency needs and those with severe challenging behaviour are often left out when we discuss the issue of inclusion. These children remain the most excluded groups of children from mainstream education.
Granted, some of these children pose unique challenges when it comes to their inclusion. However, if a proper Individual Education Plan (IEP) is designed, proper support could be identified. And giving the child the right support in daily life can do a lot in addressing the particular challenges encountered. One cannot assume that just because a child appears to be getting nothing from the mainstream, s/he is a waste of time and resources.
In addition, proper inclusive educational planning engages with the child as a whole person, involving a multi-disciplinary approach to identifying the child’s needs and aspirations. In no way does inclusion expect teachers to provide an inclusive education on their own.
Rather, it encourages all the school staff to adopt an attitude based on inclusion, where every child is valued.
Inclusive education must be seen both as a project and as a process. While legislation offers us the direction to follow, inclusion is a process that society needs to support.
Indeed, a proper inclusive education can only be successful if there is investment that improves schools’ access to the environment, educational resources and flexibility.
Inclusion also invites us to rethink our approach to education from one focused exclusively on academic achievement to one that fosters social values.
However, crucial to the success of inclusion is the willingness of all key stakeholders to cooperate together in the realisation of inclusive education.
As a disabled adult, I firmly believe this is the only way forward!
This article originally appeared on the Tuesday 22 edition of The Times of Malta newspaper. Full reference above.
Cardona, G. C. (21/5/2013) “Goals of Inclusive Education”, The Times of Malta. Allied Publications: Malta. Also available at: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20130521/opinion/Goals-of-inclusive-education.470587(Accessed: 23 May, 2013)