27.04.2019 Global Action Week 2019: Inclusive education stories of persons with disabilities

Djemba takes class notes in braille
Djemba Salla (11) is a pupil of the PROMHANDICAM inclusive school in Yaounde, Cameroon. He suffers from low vision problems and could not fit into the regular schools in Yaounde. At PROMHANDICAM, he learned braille and is learning well alongside his peers. ©CBM

As part of Global Action Week for Education, we would like to share success stories of why the right to inclusive education matters in the lives of persons with disabilities. These are a few of their stories:

Minh's challenges as a blind teacher in Vietnam

This is the story of Minh, who is a specialist teacher supporting children who are blind or have low vision at the Nguyen Dinh Chieu (NDC) School for blind children’s inclusive education programme in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Minh was able to see until he was in the fifth grade. The article outlines his personal journey through education as a child living with blindness and how he now supports children in their inclusion journey.

Minh in class with his pupils

Minh and his students at Nguyen Dinh Chieu (NDC) School for blind children in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

My name is Minh. I currently work as a teacher at Nguyen Dinh Chieu (NDC) School for blind children in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I work in the inclusive education programme. This is a snapshot of my life, the importance of education and my family in supporting me from childhood until now:

I was born and raised in a shanty apartment building. My childhood was just like that of any child I played with. I saw everything that a sighted kid would see in Vietnam in the 1990's right up until the end of my fifth grade. One afternoon, my family and I had a great shock when I realised that my vision suddenly blurred after an afternoon nap. My next time was of numerous days spent in and out of hospital hoping for a medical solution to my condition. We were all very stressed and worried as we sought some kind of medical intervention or treatment, but it was all in vain. The doctors were concerned as they could not help, which caused even greater anxiety for my family. A cousin of mine advised me to get back on the educational track instead. We decided to rely on education rather than some treatment for my life.

I was sent to NDC School for blind children in Ho Chi Minh City six months later. As a teenager who wanted the normal life of a kid, I was happy to get back to school whether that was a special school or a mainstream school, especially after the desperate time we had gone through. I was assessed and put in the fourth grade, two years below where I could have been. Why? Well I needed to learn Braille, orientation and mobility and some blind-relevant skills. I had to move in to a place near the school so that I could take classes regularly and easily. This was a massive change in my living and learning environments. The new skills were gained and honed, and new friends introduced and made. I eventually rebalanced my life as I accepted the new challenges and situations. When I did reach the fifth grade, I was chosen to join the school integration programmes, which I hadn’t heard a lot about. However, for me and for my family this was somehow a joyous prospect. Every time I think of that time, I find myself realising that re-joining mainstream education with sighted children was the making of me and was such a pivotal moment in my development as a human being. Although I accepted a blind person’s life, getting back to a normal environment was still there inside me.

I was equipped and supported to attend the nearby mainstream school. I looked forward eagerly to learn about my new environment, learn school subjects and make new friends. To my dismay, I felt that sighted children seemed to do better academically as well as socially compared to us children who are blind. Sighted children navigated the playground better. In study, we would face the perplexity of all the concepts or activities which were visually presented. In daily routines, we often asked for assistance with many things such as picking things up for us or getting lost unless we wanted to be embarrassed by fumbling or flailing around with a cane or arms. I realised quickly that I needed to face these hurdles with new attitude, problem solving skills and self-esteem. We would need a specialist support teacher from NDC who could liaise with mainstream teachers to help them understand our needs, to create blind-friendly settings, to reinforce key lesson points that were confusing for us due to lack of suitable materials, e.g. tactile materials, or simply give us some timely reassurance. After our day in mainstream we would return to NDC to take some tutorials. These supports helped tremendously; they would provide information in Braille, clarify some points which had been misunderstood and generally to help us learn how to manage alongside our sighted peers.

This combination of being educated in a mainstream school but with specialised support helped us to make progress academically as well as socially. After acing some challenges in the beginning, things got easier for me. I completed secondary school without any big problems. I built up my resilience and coping strategies to manage my blindness. In particular, I knew who to turn to if I needed support or faced any some obstacle(s) that might have broken my learning journey.

I went on to university. After graduation I set out on a new adventure: I got a job as an assistance coordinator in an insurance company. As a visually impaired employee, I really needed certain modifications and adaptations in the work setting. The manager soon found that my productivity and efficiency outweighed these blindness-related changes. I demonstrated my capability and I felt included as a welcome member of the team. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Three years later, I was offered a teaching job at NDC School, and as a blind person I wanted to assist other blind children to have the opportunities I had enjoyed. I had a good understanding of English; therefore, I was put in charge of giving English tutorials to the students in the inclusion programmes (formerly called the integration programme in my day). I realised that the boys and girls were facing many more challenges than I recalled for myself, in particular, when it came to note taking/reading, assessments, and even policies. Considering the prevalent use of laptop computers, the students were prone to misuse or overuse these in their relaxation and learning time. Some of the children who were academically less able but had to join the programme really struggled at times. It means that their difficulties comprised mine at their age and some current ones. I needed to help them overcome their lack of competence and confidence, build up their self-esteem and encourage their efforts in learning. Fortunately, the principal realised that more staff were needed to support the inclusion programme; some experienced teachers were officially teamed up to carry it out.

Then came an incredible opportunity for me. I was awarded with a scholarship to follow a master’s degree in education in Australia. This opportunity not only helped me to improve my English skills, but also to develop my knowledge about disability-inclusive education. Whilst I was very much looking forward to my study, I firstly needed to arrange the modifications I’d need to have in place to be able to access the course as well as learn how to adapt to being a foreigner in a different culture and that as a person with a visual impairment. After the two-year course, I felt satisfied with the knowledge and experiences I’d gained which empowered me to make some notable improvements in NDC’s inclusion programmes.

The pressure of a sighted learning and living environments on the visually impaired people necessitates such a worthwhile programme as the inclusion programmes. As people living with visual impairment, we need certain adaptations and certain skills, or certain tools, or otherwise we cannot achieve the same as anyone else. This is what I have gained through the specialised supports at NDC and the opportunities to study and work alongside sighted counterparts.

Finding fulfilment for Olivia in Burkina Faso

This is the story of how a child with deafblindness is attending her local school. Bambara Olivia is 11 years old. She was born deaf in Garango in the East-Central region of Burkina Faso. At seven years of age, she suffered a trauma in the eye, leaving her with a visual impairment; and, therefore, deafblind. Despite the challenges, Olivia attends her local school with the support of a dedicated teacher.

Marie-Claire and her teacher

Marie-Claire with her teacher communicating in sign language.

Bambara Olivia, is 11 years old. She was born deaf in Garango in the East-Central region of Burkina Faso. When she was seven, she suffered a trauma in the eye; this trauma left a scar in the cornea. She had now become visually impaired as well, leaving her deafblind.

At that time her parents and people around her thought that she would not benefit from going to school. She was kept at home.

Olivia comes from a low-income family where her father is a farmer and her mother a housewife. She is the second born of four children. Her family’s financial circumstances and her disability meant that her parents came to the conclusion that Olivia would not benefit from going to school and that they could not afford to send her to a special school. This situation is not unusual in Burkina Faso. Many children with disabilities are not supported to go to school by their families or communities. Not all teachers are aware of the country’s policy for all children to have equitable access to education. This situation is changing, and more teachers are being trained in inclusive education. However, life was hard for Olivia living with deafblindness in her rural community.

She was often left alone at home with very little communication between her and her family. There seemed to be no way to change her situation. The other children of her age were not very interested in her because of her deafblindness. She was seen as different. She was marginalised, unhappy, and was seen as a burden on her parents because she was not independent. She was totally reliant on others to support her every day existence.

In 2013, a community-based inclusive development (CBID) team came across Olivia in Garango. This programme is an implementation partner for CBM's inclusive education inclusive project. After her identification she was referred for eye health care.  During medical examination by an ophthalmologist, the corneal scar in the one eye was found to be irreparable. The second eye was diagnosed as having low vision, so she could use this vision to find her way around and to learn in school.

Her hearing was also assessed. She was diagnosed with a sensorineural hearing loss, leaving her profoundly deaf. No amplification aids were available. She and her family were provided with lessons in signed communication.

Despite the support of the CBID team with eye medicines, her parents were still pessimistic and reluctant to send her to school. The CBID team worked hard to convince Olivia's parents to send her to school. Following these discussions Marie-Claire was enrolled in the Bougla Ladenbourg School in Galindo. This is a state school supported by, amongst others, Centre Saint Martin e.V. (Germany), who has supported inclusive education activities at the school for several years.

The staff at the Bougla Ladenbourg School are trained in inclusive education techniques. All children are used to seeing and being in class with all children different needs and strengths. They are used to diversity. The inclusive ethos of the school means that signed communication is accepted as an important way for communicating with children who are deaf. Since Olivia's admission to primary school, her life has changed for the better. Schooling with deaf and hearing children has been positive for her. She can communicate in sign language with her classmates and her teacher.

Marie-Claire is in CP2 Class (second year of primary school). She does find some aspects of school learning challenging due to the years she spent out of school, but her class teacher is supportive and ensures that she is provided with support to learn alongside her peers and to recognise her strengths. He provides her with individual lessons to help reinforce some information she may have missed using a variety of methods, e.g. providing visuals clues, providing concrete objects, tactile materials. As a result of this, she is now a more fulfilled and self-sufficient girl.

For now, she will continue her studies in the primary school. Her ultimate ambition is to own a weaving shop where she can make loincloths to earn a living for herself. She will need to learn these skills in a training centre when she completes her primary schooling. Her parents are now very proud of her achievements and feel much more positive about Olivia attending school. She now has friends and life is more fulfilling for her. Thanks to her teacher, her CBID support, her friends in school and her parents she has a vision for her future.

This story was published in the DBI Review Magazine Number 61 in July 2018.

Maria thrives in her inclusive classroom in Nicaragua

Maria from Managua, Nicaragua is 19 years old and lost her vision when she was five months old. Since her early years, she was in a special education school, learned Braille and how to move and live independently. Since the seventh grade, she has attended a regular school. She has had to confront difficulties as her teachers were not trained to attend learners who are blind. Thankfully, her classmates accept, support and include her. Also, her teacher learned how to teach and attend to her needs. Today Maria is a leader; she is one of the best students in her school and participates in many social activities.

Maria says, “A person who has education is a person with many weapons to fight poverty. In society it makes us independent, it makes us be more useful to our country. A person with a disability is no exception. Society must learn that we persons with disabilities are all equal and that many times it’s not the condition itself that makes us have a disability but it’s the environment, the attitudes and the bad actions. I like to fight until I am able to reach my dreams and I never give up, regardless of the limitations.”

Watch Maria's story in this CBM video

Maria is blind and flourishes at a mainstream school where the teachers have additional training and resources to provide an inclusive education. This video is a collaboration between CBM International, Organización de Ciegos de Nicaragua Maricela Toledo and Room3 Australia.

Integrating Luz Elena into community school in Mexico

Luz Elena is an 8-year-old girl with visual impairment. She lives in an indigenous community and her family is visited by Piña Palmera, an NGO in Oaxaca, Mexico that works with persons with disabilities. Luz Elena’s family was overprotective of her, so independence, socialization with other children and mobilization was a great challenge for Luz Elena. With the support of a blind trainer working for the NGO, Luz Elena was integrated into the community pre-school and awareness raising workshops were held with the teachers, her classmates, as well as the families of the community. Piña Palmera also coordinated with the community primary school to prepare for her transition from pre- to primary school. Luz Elena, her family, as well as the primary teacher, received Braille training. Today Luz Elena is included in her family, community and school. She has friends and participates in social and cultural events. She learns well in school and knows how to read and write in Braille. She is independent and uses a white cane. Her family has accepted her disability and are no longer overprotective of her any more.

Luz Elena’s preschool teacher has become an example for other teachers in the subject of disability and inclusion. Even her primary school teacher gathered experience in inclusive teaching.

Read more of Luz Elena’s story here.

Fabricio inspires his teachers in Honduras

Fabricio is included in the Santa Monica Education Centre, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which is supported by PREPACE (inclusive education programme of Institution for Rehabilitation of Persons with Cerebral Palsy). Fabricio is a 13-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, who lives in an institutional home, and is currently in the fourth grade of basic education. This was Fabricio’s teacher’s first experience working with students with cerebral palsy. His teacher had many doubts and did not know how to approach the teaching / learning process, how to evaluate Fabricio, or how to make adjustments, and so on.

The Santa Monika Education Center has a collaboration agreement with the inclusion education programme of PREPACE. An itinerant teacher visits the classroom and explains about disability. In this process, Fabricio’s teacher learned a great deal. And, now Fabricio is well-included, and both his teacher and classmates have learned how to adapt their communication, materials, evaluation and group learning process to his needs. Facilitators for success were the continuous coordination with his caretakers (to identify and work with Fabricio's strengths and limitations and find alternatives among all those involved), collaboration with the support teacher of PREPACE, and partnering with other students in the classroom.

Learn how Fabricio inspired one of his teachers here

Fabricio and his classmates

Fabricio and his classmates dress up for Día del Indio (“Indigenous Day”) in 2017.

Zoe overcomes disabilities in Guatemala

Zoe Anelisse López Andrade is a 6-year-old girl from Guatemala City, who transmits a look tranquility, happiness, love and transparency. She began attending the Guatemalan Foundation for children with deafblindness, "FUNDAL", at three years of age, after a diagnosis of bilateral hearing loss (the inability to hear sounds) and the abnormality of chromosome two.

Her first experiences of early stimulation she shared with children of her same age in the pre-school education classroom, where all the stimuli around her gave her fear and anxiety so that she broke down in tears. As time passed, each experience gave her more security and tranquility. Even though her periods of attention were short, and she needed to stand up all the time, moving her hands and head. Since 2016, she has been part of the educational inclusion programme. She has undergone different transitions that have allowed her to mature in an integral way.

Educational inclusion has allowed her to develop new skills and each activity shared with her peers gives her meaning at every moment. Her periods of attention were increasing and standing up was decreasing. She learned to share, to follow instructions according to a model, to follow patterns of movement and to locate school materials where they belong.

At the start of 2019 she changed her school environment and is now with a group of peers who embrace disability and help her to improve her academic skills.

The educational community has also developed new experiences and transcended toward new beliefs of inclusive education by providing learning opportunities to other students with disabilities.

Educational inclusion has allowed Zoe to strengthen her independence, create new ties of support and copy new communication models. The most important part of the process is that every experience acquires a new meaning. 

Written by Patricia Guox

English translation by Katharina Pfortner (CBM inclusive education advisor in Latin America)