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Inclusion of students with disabilities

Aug 30,2014 - Last updated at Aug 30,2014

Inclusive education… inclusive education… inclusive education… .”

These are words uttered by my father, His Highness Prince Raad Bin Zeid, instructing me to continue advocating for the right to education of people with disabilities.

And true to my father’s words, since my appointment as president of the Higher Council for Affairs of Persons with Disabilities (HCD), I diligently begun reviewing the statistics and prerequisites that make up the reality of education for Jordanians with disabilities, including the numbers of students enrolled in educational institutions (inclusive and otherwise).

What I found, much to my surprise, is that although we have come quite a long way in promoting education, the percentage of children with disabilities in schools is shockingly low.

Why are so many of our students with disabilities missing out on the opportunity to get quality education? Who is responsible for such a discriminatory lapse? 

Isn’t primary education compulsory for all, according to Article 20 of the Jordanian Constitution?

If so, then where are all those children? Are they enrolled in special-education centres? Are they roaming the streets, unsupervised? Or, worse yet, are they prisoners in their own homes, unable to step out beyond their doorsteps for fear of being stigmatised?

And what role do their parents have in demanding the provision of accessible schools and friendly, conducive learning environments for their children?

I have spent one too many nights delving over these questions, pondering ways in which we can effect change and penetrate, once and for all, this perpetual reality, a reality that has led me to think of whether what HCD is doing in this regard is sufficient.

Are we doing enough, or must we change the course of our policies and programmes to perform up to par with what is required of us and our commitments to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — specifically Article 24 and the right to education without discrimination and on an equal basis with others?

Now, sceptics may say that inclusive education cannot and does not happen, but I say it can and it has.

I still remember the elated look on my father’s face at the honorary ceremony held in recognition of students with disabilities who obtained some of the highest grades in the General Secondary Exam.

His words of praise, in particular, are what we should all take note of: “These students,” he proudly told me, “have proven that the exclusion of students with disabilities from schools is not because they are unable to be mainstreamed and included… .  They are able, and can obtain grades that are worthy of their abilities, some of which at times, are even higher than those obtained by their peers without disabilities… enabling them to get into the best Jordanian universities and pursue a variety of educational specialties and streams”.

Where, then, does the problem lie?

Since its inception in 2008, HCD has striven to promote the rights of people with disabilities, with particular focus on education, working to develop model programmes and services, issuing accreditation standards for such programmes and subsidising the enrolment fees of students in inclusive schools — all while working within a participatory framework with governmental, voluntary and international institutions, as well as with the relevant civil society organisations, towards a no-gap policy and a comprehensive disability-inclusive infrastructure of service provision.

And yet, in spite of all that has been done, not least the signing of a three-party agreement determining the roles and responsibilities of the ministries of education and social development as well as of HCD, many of our efforts are continuously facing impediments.

This is generally due to the economic situation in Jordan, the political turmoil in the region and its impact on the overcrowded schools, and the limited financial resources — factors with a negative and damaging impact on the prerequisites of inclusion and the prospects for students with disabilities.

Given these circumstances, what then must we do?

In my view, the Ministry of Education must adopt a holistic approach to learning and teaching, as it is only then that people with disabilities will no longer be excluded from mainstream schooling.

Doing so is not very difficult. Yes, it may be challenging, but it is not impossible. Simply put, it requires the will, ability and creativity needed to mainstream children within the classroom.

With a little assistance, joint parent-teacher planning, teacher training and, more importantly, the acceptance of difference, children with disabilities can be fully and functionally included.

Teachers of all grades and stages of learning must be trained on the various disability-inclusive modes of communication, including sign language interpretation and Braille; they must be made aware of the various teaching and communication methods, including through various technological means, and must be given the opportunity to explore non-conventional teaching tools.

So, rather than simply focus on the need to have students with disabilities complete the curricula at the same time and in the same manner as those without disabilities, teachers should aim to utilise the said curricula in the best possible way, and in a manner that enables these students to interact positively with their surrounding environment.

Such a system will be beneficial to all, as both teachers and students learn from the unconventional, promoting respect for difference, individual thought and tolerance of the other.

Countries, such as the US, United Kingdom, Japan and numerous others in both the developed and developing worlds, have shown that inclusion does work, using a variety of teaching and learning strategies, including having an individual educational plan for each student, as well as one or more shadow (or assistant) teachers in a classroom.

That is why in many of Japan’s mainstream schools, for example, it is the norm to have students with autism playing and learning alongside their peers without disabilities.

Such a system should be applicable to and inclusive of all the world’s children. In reality, however, this is sadly not the case.

According to UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2013 Report, while the right to education is universal, children with disabilities are “disproportionately denied this right”.

Data from a household survey covering 13 low- and middle-income countries indicates that children with disabilities aged 6-17 years are “significantly less likely to be enrolled in school than peers without disabilities”.

For Jordan, this means that we are unable to uphold our commitments, not just within the CRPD, but also in terms of the second Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education, as well as those within the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The cause of excluding children with disabilities in the world and in Jordan, may be the financial burden that comes with having to provide an inclusive learning environment. 

But the price of doing so on our resources and national wealth is even greater. For, the cost of providing inclusive education services is much less than the socio-economic burden endured by parents, communities and governments.

According to the Ministry of Social Development, the enrolment cost per month of people with disabilities in residential care centres is estimated at JD700 — that is aside from the government-funded monthly benefits distributed by the National Aid Fund.

Concurrently, the consequences of gaining access to an equal and inclusive education, or vocational training opportunities, for that matter, is ultimately financial independence.

As functional and productive citizens of our country, whether by paying taxes, owning businesses or as employees in various organisations, people with disabilities are active contributors to society, shouldering the responsibility of “giving back” to their communities what was essentially paid in by way of their education — if not more.

Inclusion is a vested interest and benefit for all.

History has proved this to be true, thanks to renowned individuals with disabilities: Thomas Alva Edison, the prolific inventor of electricity who was a hyperactive child ridiculed as being “addled” and “difficult”, by his teachers because he had traits that were deemed autistic, Beethoven, the world’s greatest composer and pianist whose most famous symphonies, enjoyed by millions today, were composed when he had lost his hearing, and Daniel Tammet, the author who masters 11 languages, including Icelandic, which he had perfected in seven days just by watching a television programme. He has also recently created a new language, known as ‘M?nti’.

Tammet has autism.

We know only too well that the road to inclusive education can only be walked in collective steps, taken, slowly but surely, one after another by the men and women working to ensure that our citizens with disabilities are ultimately no longer excluded from mainstream education on the basis of disability.

After all, investing in the potential of children and youth with disabilities, in all sectors, but especially in education, promotes the successful enjoyment of fundamental human rights for and by all, without exception.

The writer is president of the Higher Council for Affairs of Persons with Disabilities (HCD) and is the special envoy to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.

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