Decades ago, declarations which sought to establish the rights of all men chiefly in matters of religion, education and occupation were enacted after enlightened periods of human history. The document titled “The Rights of the Child” is one such instrument. It outlines privileges reserved for children around the world. One of the most discussed is the right to education. This right is further captured in constitutions worldwide. Whereas the right is reserved for all children, educators in the Special Education Sphere have, for some time, lamented that the privilege appears to be chiefly reserved for children without disabilities. They argue that the presence of stair-filled walkways, grill-covered drains and constricted hallways and bathroom spaces indicate that these spaces were retrofitted for individuals who possess no disability. Further, the aura of disability-phobia which often grips individuals at our educational institutions hinders the embracement of inclusive education. Will the embracement of inclusive education by all stakeholders signal a move to educate the populace to be independent thinkers and contributors? Would a rejection of such a concept suggests a partial embracement of the right to education? Caribbean Posh met with St. Lucian Educational Psychologist Antonia Joseph who possesses an undeniable passion for the realization for inclusive education. As a proponent, Joseph is resolute that education for all begins when a society can adequately provide suitable accommodation for all citizens.
Today, the principal of Dunnattor School (St. Lucia), Joseph once worked as a special educator at the Autism Unit at this institution which advocates for “inclusion in society” to “improve quality of life”. She is also a founding member of the (now dormant) Autism Society of St. Lucia.
In speaking of inclusive education, Joseph says, “Education should be about bridging the gap their disabilities create to level out that playing field” – a field which has undoubtedly placed huddles in the way of special learners. The “bridging” of this policy and environmental gap “gives them an opportunity to grow. It’s their right. It’s the right to be an independent adult,” she continues.
Many in the education sphere would concur with these sentiments but have our actions proven that we understand and appreciate the adversities encountered by individuals with disabilities? If we truly do, would it not be reasonable to conclude that there would be a deliberate effort by policymakers to create or renovate physical spaces which accommodate all individuals? In our appreciation, wouldn’t our embracement of the “no child left behind” concept propel us to evolve in our thinking and treatment of those who are different from us…yet special in extraordinary ways?
Special learners and their families face a plethora of challenges, some physical and others socio-economic. In some cases, Joseph notes that the “parents are in denial” and “embarrassed” because “there is still a stigma attached to having a child with a disability”. She notes further that “the way in which they are received by individuals out there” further exacerbates the issues. Self-esteem problems emerge. In her daily contact with students and parents, the challenges are obvious. At Dunnattor School, many students face socio-economic problems. As a private school with ministry-assigned teachers, the institution relies heavily on donations to feed students daily, to purchase instructional media, to provide clothing for students and to transport them to and from the institution.
While the challenges are there, Joseph is hopeful that a Caribbean Development Bank Programme dubbed “Education Quality Improvement Programme” will assist in changing attitudes towards people with disabilities. She is also hopeful that the “no child left behind” concept will be embraced by all as St. Lucia moves towards inclusive education. Some of the initiatives which come under this programme include the exploration of best practices as it relates to special education in mainstream schools and the rehabilitation of selected schools.
Implementing inclusive education will be challenging but structures can exist to assist all stakeholders. For the general populace, there is a need to educate; to change the mindset of individuals who hold on to views which suggest that individuals with disabilities should be deprived of their right to education. There is a need to teach our people that individuals may be different but they remain human. Hence, they hurt like we hurt. In our schools, teachers require continuous professional development which speaks to the communication with persons with disabilities and how we can all contribute towards equipping our students with skills which will “not make them dependent on us forever”. Joseph believes that there should be more competency-based examinations for special learners. With the introduction of CVQs, she is hopeful that many individuals with disabilities will be able to attain necessary qualification to enhance their standards of living. Joseph also believes that school psychologists are needed in certain schools to deals with the growing challenges which special learners may encounter on their learning journey.
Inclusive education should not be a choice. It assists in the provision of a right; the right to education. While challenges are inevitable in a society where stigmas towards individuals with disabilities thrive, it is not impossible to achieve. By changing minds …one at a time…we can ensure that all our citizens are allowed the opportunity to learn to contribute meaningfully to our society.