All that they want…

Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree takes a look at the sorry state of education for special children in the country

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Photo- United Nations

It is a regular day at a vocational training centre- in a paper crafts classroom there are around ten students with two teachers present. Shahriar, a trainee there, loves to take pictures and draw. As a visitor walked into his classroom, he immediately left the room without taking permission from his teachers and returned with his camera in a few minutes.

He asked the visitor to stand with his teacher so that he can take a picture. A girl with spectacles at the back, seemed rather observant. Placing one hand on her cheek, she gave the visitor a very curious look and kept examining the unknown person for five minutes at a stretch.

Sourav from the beads section, an intellectually challenged boy, loves talking to people so much that he eventually runs out of topics to talk; another intellectually challenged came to his aid as he vomited and thus became the topic for Sourav’s latest news that he will be spreading in the school. He wants to express himself. Along with this enthusiasm for talking, he takes a great deal of interest in making jewelleries and does his job expertly.

Everyone of these children have developed, in one way or the other, ways through which they can express themselves and showcase their capabilities. Despite their enthusiasm and desire to express themselves, most of these children are isolated from mainstream education.

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According to Population Census 2011 conducted by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 1.41 per cent of the entire population has disabilities. According to UNICEF, the proportion of children with disabilities in Bangladesh ranges from less than 1.4 per cent to 17.5 per cent. Given the estimated child population of 57.5 million, the number of children with some form of disability could range from under 805,000 to 10 million.

There are more than ten types of disabilities listed under the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013, which are known as autism or autism spectrum disorders, physical disability, mental illness leading to disability, visual disability, speech disability, intellectual disability, hearing disability, deaf-blindness, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, multiple disability and other disabilities.

According to UNICEF, children with disabilities in Bangladesh are among the most marginalised in the education sector. A report of 2002 says that out of an estimated 1.6 million children with disabilities in the primary school age group, only four per cent had access to education in areas with no disability services, and the majority were children with mild to moderate physical impairments.

Changes of the situations had come with the Primary Education Development Programmes in the country. PEDP III (2012-2017) brought along initiatives like accessibility of schools by making inclusive education an option and providing stipends which, acted upon accordingly, has the potential of removing more barriers to education for these children.

Bangladeshi government has arranged for education stipends for disabled children which provides the disabled students with Taka 500 in primary level, Taka 700 in secondary level, Taka 1000 in higher secondary level, which can also increase to Taka 1200 during one’s enrollment into bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes.

But the problem with providing the stipend is that most people or parents of the children do not know about the programmes. They have to go through a lot of procedures to be enlisted which becomes troublesome for the illiterate poor parents. Another problem is that, although the stipend is to be given every month, the institutions distribute them twice a year, and as they get six months’ at a time, some teachers keep a percentage of the money for themselves.

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For higher secondary school education, the initiatives are lesser in number. Initiatives include arrangements of education for visually impaired children in many schools across the country, which provide them with a hostel or a resource room and a resource teacher. But the number of students for each school is limited to 10. The government is providing them with special reading materials like Braille books and other teaching aids. The resource teachers are given trainings but they are still not quite experts at using these books as important tools in their lessons.

As far as the concept of inclusive education is concerned, where children with disabilities can study in the same schools as the normal children, it is still at a budding stage in our country. The key problem comes with the infrastructural inadequacy in mainstream schools for providing special education. Age difference, maturity level and performance quality often become issues in this regard, although according to the rights act 2013 no school can invalidate the admission of a special child for any reason.

Gloria Dash, a parent of a special child, says to New Age Xtra, ‘Normal schools would not admit my daughter in standard six because she is 13 years old which is too old for the class. She has the intellectual ability of a sixth grade student. But this difference in maturity level becomes an issue.’

She continues, ‘Helpless, while providing homeschooling, I admitted my child into a vocational training centre which is at least giving her an institutional environment. But it is not entirely beneficial for her future compared to conventional schooling system.’

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Children with cerebral palsy, neuro-typical disabilities face a lot of physical challenges, they need support. But proper aid is not accessible for them. As such, after a certain age, it becomes hard to move them from one place to another.

The country is also lagging behind in educating neurologically challenged children. It is easier to assess the visual disabilities as experts say, people are not quite familiar with neurological disabilities which is why parents, relatives, even the doctors cannot spot the problems very often.

There are 370 neuro-development schools for children with disabilities in Bangladesh altogether, which need to be taken under government supervision. At the moment, 50 schools are under government supervision.

In these schools, the pay scale of a headmaster ranges from a minimum Taka 4041 to Taka 12,000. The amount is certainly not enough for engaging more teachers in the sector, as some parents and teachers shared with New Age Xtra. Although it was proposed in the parliament to allocate a bigger budget for this section, the promises are yet to be implemented.

For the physically challenged, the schools usually do not have the facilities that are needed, for example wheel chairs, ramp, specially made toilets etcetera. During certain situations, even teachers and students are not helpful and often verbally abuse these children.

More human resources, teachers and trainers are some of the major needs to lessen the problems of educating special children, say parents and teachers. The international standard ratio for special children and teachers is 1:1. In Bangladesh, the ratio is 7:1 which may stretch even up to 10:1.

Also, given that most of the teachers are females, quite a few of them leave this profession after their marriages following pressure from in-laws, lack of time, and even for superstitions held by other people that the teachers will bear disabled children too if they stay with these children for a long time.

In order to provide more teachers to this sector, there needs to be more institutions that can offer bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and training on special education. But there is one hurdle to this.

Nur Jahan Dipa, Vice Principal of PFDA-Vocational Training Center explains to New Age Xtra, ‘Only three organisations under National University-Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation, SWID Bangladesh and National Foundation for Development of the Disabled Persons-are providing bachelor’s degree on special education. University of Dhaka offers a degree and only Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation offers a master’s degree.’

If the number of the institutions were not a problem, even then the actual predicament is that these institutions require a regular graduation first to get a bachelor’s degree in special education. Miss Dipa places a question in this regard, ‘Why can someone not enter into a graduation programme in special education right after their HSC, which should make the whole process easier?’

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For the autistic or intellectually challenged who cannot be educated through conventional methods, the government has set up vocational schools or training centres, which provide training on technical skills.

It is difficult to teach autistic children. A special educator would prefer working with three or four otherwise challenged children than working with one autistic child, confesses a teacher to New Age Xtra. Even out in the society, leading a normal life becomes difficult for them. A mother of an autistic child tells New Age Xtra, ‘I had to fight at every step to make people understand that my son is disabled, since they are not familiar with autism and they do not comprehend his problems. After the conference on autism in 2011, people now at least are familiar with the word.’

For children with hearing and speech impairments there are government primary schools, but not as many high schools. Miss Dipa says, ‘Children with hearing impairment are getting a better education compared to others. After completing higher secondary education some of them are doing their graduation or joining the work force’.

Education for disabled girls and the poor is even more difficult to acquire. The well-off families can provide for the costly and unconventional education of their special children. But when it comes to the poor, they neither have the money nor adequate information on how to use government facilities in this regard.

Shirin Akhter, chairman, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation (WDDF), says to New Age Xtra, ‘The girls are more deprived for several social issues which make them more vulnerable to accidents. In case of a boy, the parents do not really need to worry about anything bad happening to them, but disabled girls are often the victims of sexual assaults and molestation.’

Asked about what he thinks of the government initiatives, Nurul Islam, director of SWID Bangladesh, says, ‘Although the government has an aim to rehabilitate the differently abled in regular social life, the necessary facilities that ought to be provided, are certainly not meeting the needs. Even if the MDG goals are met, these lives are likely to get an insurance of social rehabilitation.’

Experts and activists involved in special children’s education think that there has to be reformations in national curriculum to help these children. For example, if a child is bad at math, the examination board can come up with a system that will compensate this by evaluating the other skills the child is good at.

If all these challenges can be regarded with proper concentration and be deemed as issues requiring resolutions soon, probably, Bangladesh can offer a better educational and learning environment for the special children in near future.