Sam*, who is in year 9, feels excluded by most of his teachers and the ongoings of his class as he is asked to direct any problems in understanding to his LSE (learning support educator) so as not to slow his classmates down. He is also given different work to do with his LSE while his classmates work in groups. Mario has had an adapted curriculum throughout his primary and secondary school years. When he finished compulsory schooling, he could not sit for MATSEC exams and had nothing to show for all the skills and knowledge that he had gained in 11 years, except for a school-leaving certificate. 

Our education system and most schools recognise the importance of inclusion. We often believe that it is being practised within our educational communities, yet, many parents’ and learners’ experiences indicate that integration is probably closer to reality. Learners with disabilities are very diverse not only in the type of disability – such as physical, cognitive, developmental or behavioural – but also other factors such as socio-economic status, level of parental support, language proficiency and so on. These diverse factors are also found in other learners in the school and the community outside of school. 

The presence of children with disabilities has a positive impact on the school community and its culture, as long as equal opportunities for high-quality education are offered to these children. Classrooms are heterogeneous – just as much as society. It is essential to recognise that we need to work towards an education system that provides high-quality education to its diverse population. 

High-quality education for all students can only be provided if we keep an open discussion between all stakeholders, including parents and students themselves, and an attitude of continuous improvement. Greater collaboration is also needed between agencies and services involved in the lives of children with disabilities and their schools.

This requires greater cooperation between the ministries of education, health, and inclusion and social wellbeing to ensure that children with disabilities and chronic health conditions are offered quality education and other services such as therapies that work together, rather than one or the other. 

Universal Design for Learning approaches within schools and classrooms should reduce the need for individual adaptations by offering flexibility in how the curriculum can be accessed and engaged with and how students show what they know. Specific needs not addressed by such approaches should be catered for effectively while trying to keep children with their peers as much as possible, through a rethink of curricula, examinations, learning experiences, content accessibility and resource allocation. 

Only true inclusion within schools and our education system will lead to true inclusion in society at large- Karen Buttigieg

All learners benefit in one way or another when exposed to diverse learning experiences and contexts, including diversity within their classroom community.

Inclusion or equality in education does not mean treating children the same way – identical instructions, explanations, materials and so on. It does not mean that children have to try and fit as much as possible within a system that has changed little over that past years, remaining mostly standardised and rigid, with such a fast-paced curriculum that does not leave time for diversification.

Despite putting a lot of effort in rehearsing, Paul was not passed on the mike during the school play as teachers feared that he would not recite his line well. 

Keeping six-year-old Neil in a room with other disabled children during breaktime instead of taking him out with his classmates in the playground is not inclusion.

Asking Chris’s mum not to send her son to school when it is an outing day – as outings are not accessible – is not inclusion. Students taken out of the classroom for considerable periods because they are not getting what they need from within the classroom is not inclusion. Asking Kevin’s mum at the school gate to take him back home because his LSE is sick is not inclusion.

Lisa was told point-blank by the school administration that her son should not be in the school but at a resource centre and, subsequently, a lot of pressure was placed on her to carry out this transfer. This is surprisingly happening more and more as schools feel that they cannot cater to a particular learner’s specific needs. Segregating students with disabilities into resource centres is not inclusion. All schools should be resource centres, equipped with physical and human resources that reflect their population’s diversity. 

Jonathan has a tablet with software that aids his learning. He has been using this successfully for three years with an LSE. This year, he was placed with an LSE who is not trained in using this software, so its use was stopped.

Rita has dyslexia but was not supported during her primary school years. She started lagging behind and misbehaving in class due to frustration. She was often sent home and eventually expelled.

Sometimes, even the most basic of resources are missing. Catherine, who is in kindergarten, attends a school which does not have a ramp or a proper changing room, both things that she requires to move independently and feel dignified.

Equality means acknowledging that each child has equal value and dignity as a learner.

The system and school then have a responsibility to support the fulfilment of that learning potential within the community.

Only true inclusion within schools and our education system will lead to true inclusion in society at large.

*All true stories as told by parents.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of children and parents.

Karen Buttigieg is a committee member, National Parents’ Society for Persons with Disability (NPSPD).

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