Our curriculum is still not disable-friendly and hence not accessible to children with visual and hearing impairments.
In Nepal, children with disabilities are among the most marginalized groups in terms of access, participation and learning achievements. According to recent government data, less than 48,000 children with disabilities have enrolled in schools, which is just around 2 percent of the total number of children with disabilities. It can be argued that available data on disability does not reflect actual diversity of persons with disabilities in Nepal, let alone gauge their access to inclusive education. Even the mid-term evaluation of the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) had noted that inclusive education remains elusive. But why is inclusive education essential?
First, inclusive education attends to the diversity of students and values their contribution in the educational setting. In a truly inclusive classroom, every child feels safe and develops a sense of belonging because of support from peers and teachers. They participate in school activities, enjoy field trips, attend sports and extra-curricular activities together. Moreover, students and parents together define learning goals and make decisions that affect their life. Most importantly, teachers receive training and other resources that are instrumental in addressing the needs of all students including children with disabilities.
Likewise, inclusive education is instrumental in dismantling discriminatory attitudes and practices and ensuring access to quality education for all children. Schools provide the setting for any child’s first interaction with the outside world. Studies have shown that children develop mutual respect and improve their mutual understanding when students from diverse abilities and backgrounds learn and play together. When education is inclusive, there are better prospects for civic participation, social life and employment for those with disabilities.
The focus in developed countries has been on inclusive schools for children who need more specialized interventions. But in countries like Nepal there are still many barriers to inclusive education.
For one, discriminatory attitude to children with disabilities and their families persists. The majority of children with disabilities face physical barriers to access their classroom. Our curriculum is still not disable-friendly and, as a result, not accessible to children with visual and hearing impairments.
There are language and communication barriers and socio-economic factors that are specific to certain groups of children. Difficulties imposed by geographical isolation limit access to schools even for children without disabilities. Additionally, the funds for inclusive education are not sufficient to promote inclusivity and accessibility in classrooms.
Even in the case of ‘Education for All’ framework and other inclusive education-focused policies, there is no universal understanding of inclusive education among local and national level stakeholders. Besides, there is in Nepal no proper way to identify children with disabilities at an early age so as to reduce long-term complications.
Though the Ministry of Education has taken steps to address disability concerns—such as endorsing ‘Inclusive Education Policy’ and ‘Equity Strategy’ and launching fully inclusive ‘School Sector Development Plan’—it lacks skills and resources required to ensure sustainable implementation of these policies and strategies. But if Nepal is to make progress on inclusive education, we must have trained teachers who are able to teach students with diverse needs and learning styles. This includes offering writing aids, considering physical ability of students, accommodating their communication needs, and reasonable adjustments in tests.
More funds must go to schools in rural areas so that they too can provide inclusive and accessible services to children with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. The government should also prioritize building accessible schools that have disable-friendly seating arrangement and accessible sanitation facilities. If necessary, curriculum needs to be revised as well. Separate arrangement for hearing aids, glasses, text-to-voice software, audio books and magnifying glass, also help immensely.
Our government and schools by themselves alone cannot achieve inclusive education. Therefore, parents also need to be assertive enough to ensure their child’s right to inclusive education. In a truly inclusive society, disabled children should be appreciated as reflection of human diversity and the system should support their social engagement through different activity-based learning modalities.
It bears reminding our government that it, as a subscriber to the Sustainable Development Goal number four, it is responsible for ensuring inclusive and equitable education right across the country.
The author is associated with Handicap International Nepal. The views are personal