Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Photo courtesy of UKFIET

Despite having a high literacy rate, free education and good humanitarian development indicators, Sri Lankan society’s attitudes towards the disabled are still mired in the past although the country has 1.4 million people or seven percent of the population living with some form of disability. Disability is a taboo topic and giving birth to a child with a disability  is considered as a curse or a result of a sinful past life. The children are thus kept hidden from the community and society at large.

According to the latest population census of 2012, around 2% of children between the ages 5 to 14 have some form of disability, of which around only three fourths attend school compared to the near universal enrollment of other children. The largest gap between school engagement of children with disabilities and others is at the upper secondary and college level.

Too many children living with disabilities are missing out on the benefits of education. In 2016, an UNICEF report found that 23.5% of children aged 5 to 14 with disabilities were excluded from mainstream education and among those who do attend mainstream schools, participation in educational activity reduces with age. Around 55.4% of the population with disabilities aged 15 to 19 are  not engaged in any educational activity or vocational training. The main challenges for children living with disabilities in benefiting from education is cited as the lack of skilled teachers, a lack of appropriate infrastructure in schools, limited scope in curricula and narrow examination/performance focus.

Children with disabilities who prefer to receive an education in regular classrooms fear reactions of peers towards their capabilities. Similarly, parents have signalled mixed opinions towards their support of special education while teachers reveal mixed opinions towards including children with disabilities in regular classrooms. Concerns for supporting inclusion include lack of preparedness of schools, inadequate skills training and time for planning and commitment. Many professionals are sceptical of the idea of inclusion and prefer to provide education separately from the regular classroom. Children with disabilities face discrimination and stigma from the community, resulting in poor attendance in schools.

Proper services and facilities that are key for such children to participate in the learning process do not exist (or are poor), restricting their access to education. Children with disabilities are unable to reach educational institutions due to under developed transport networks and distant learning centres. While such barriers affect all students in poorly serviced communities, particular groups of learners in wheelchairs, for example, are more severely affected by these barriers. This hampers their education and they are excluded from the education system.

Educators often, due to inadequate training or lack of understanding, fail to meet the needs of  diverse learners. Most teachers lack awareness and specific knowledge on disability inclusive methodologies to support children with special educational needs, which disempowers them to support children with special needs in their classroom. One off seminars and workshops are insufficient and professional development opportunities in an ongoing basis are urgently needed.

Parents of children with disabilities are psychologically, emotionally and socially unprepared. They tend to feel isolated, frustrated and guilty. Parents, like wider society, may be ignorant about the causes of disability. Thus, it is vital to create proper awareness on early identification and intervention support, medical and therapeutic services and early childhood education and schooling. Deliberating with other parents has proved valuable in helping them to gain new perspectives. Families need to be given factual information about the causes of disabilities and how the child can be helped because parents attempted to hide their children with disabilities as it was extremely difficult for them to bear the stigma associated with disability. Moreover, siblings are often affected emotionally by the social stigma toward the disability.

Many parents of children with disabilities have a low  level of education and poor understanding of the value of education and this contributes to their children dropping out of school. Parents’ lack of interest in education in combination with poverty or by itself can result in non-enrollment of children with disabilities.

When there was a child with a disability in the family, there was often a disruption of the family structure and coping mechanism, usually with negative effects on the security and wellbeing of the family.

Children with special needs are receiving their education either in special schools, integration or inclusive setups in private and government sectors. There are many issues in providing the facilities and support services needed to enhance the learning effectiveness of children with special needs such as curriculum adaptations, alternative evaluation, assistive technology, trained teachers and transition and therefore negative attitudes towards special education and teachers stress increased. There are no special strategies designed for the students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in mainstream and that therefore teachers are unable to cater to the individual needs of students with disabilities.

Teachers face stress or dilemmas when balancing classes to meet the needs of both students with and without SEN. However, there was a pitfall in coordination between teachers of regular classes and special units. More training and seminar need to be introduced on inclusive education strategies and philosophy that reinforces teachers’ professional ideas of accepting students in need. The government is continuing training programmes for teachers.

There is a general lack of awareness in society that people with disabilities can benefit from schooling and become contributing members of  society. However, there is no legislation specific to the education of students with SEN in Sri Lanka.

In 2006 the government took a landmark decision to make all the public places and public buildings accessible for persons with disabilities. Within a three year time period, all the existing public buildings and places had to be made accessible. After nine years, most of the public buildings have no appropriate accessibility facilities for people with disabilities.

Although right to equality has been accepted as a fundamental right there is no equal treatment for the persons with disabilities by enforcing an appropriate human rights mechanism. In 1996, although National Council for the Persons with Disabilities was established, due to its minimum powers and continuous political interference it was unable to fulfil the adequate expectations of the disabled community. To certify the adequate protection for the persons with disabilities, it is necessary to legally enforce the rights of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities within the law system in Sri Lanka.

The authors work on the literacy programme at Save the Children Sri Lanka