The lack of awareness of or access to available interventions and education for children with disabilities often prevents them from accessing inclusive education.
"I must be honest and tell you that I had no intention of sending my son to school. I did not know that children with disabilities like him could go to school," says Nimasha Perera, 42, from Kamburupitiya in southern Sri Lanka. Her worried expression relaxes into a smile as she reaches the turning point in her story.
"A few months ago, something unexpected happened. At the age of eight, our only child, Sandaruvan, entered a classroom for the first time. Today, he is very happy when he puts on his school uniform. School has changed him. It makes him happy."
Sandaruvan has cerebral palsy, which affects his growth and movements and limits his speech and vision. However, it was not his disability that limited him, but his parents' lack of awareness of his condition and how to deal with the challenges it presents. This is not uncommon in rural Sri Lanka, where parents are usually unaware of or unable to access early intervention and education services - or are not able to take advantage of those that are available.
"Many families of children with disabilities face a number of challenges, including economic ones," says Piyumi Iresha. He is the education coordinator of the three-year project "Improving Access to Social Services and Achieving Inclusive Development Goals for Persons with Disabilities".
The project was implemented in 2019 in the eastern and southern provinces of Sri Lanka, by CBM. It was funded the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The Navajeevana Resource Centre for Inclusive Education is one of the project's main partners. Piyumi is the Manager of the centre's Inclusive Education Unit.
Lack of awareness keeps children with disabilities out of school
"When we first met Sandaruvan, he was confined to his home and not participating in any educational activities," reflects Piyumi. "Too many parents assume that things will sort themselves out with time. That the child is going through an adverse phase. Parents resort to various rituals to cope with the situation. Some parents become impatient and resign themselves to the situation and believe it is hopeless."
Help reached Sandaruvan in the form of a visit by members of the district-level Inclusive Education Monitoring Committee in Kamburupitiya. It is one of forty such groups that the CBM project has helped establish in the south and east of the country. The committees help children with disabilities to learn in the formal education system.
They draw up lists of children who have not been enrolled in mainstream schools. They work systematically towards their inclusion and track the progress of individual students. Community organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs), newly activated by the CBM project, take leadership positions in the committees. This also includes local officials from education, family health and social services.
Sandaruvan thrives in school
"During one of our visits to the community, we met the parents of Sandaruvan. While listening to their story, we observed how the child, who had never attended school, was skillfully but incessantly playing games on a mobile phone," says Lokitheswara Wijesinghe, 61. He is the chairperson of the committee in Kamburupitiya.
"We explained to them that the child could go to a special school to get the special attention he needed for his overall development. The mother was worried that her son would be scared in the classroom and not treated kindly. We talked to her and allayed her fears."
Sandaruvan was admitted to Mapalana Vidyalaya in Kamburupitiya, a special education section where children are prepared for integration into a mainstream class. He had to be carried to and from school and did not have a seat that suited his needs. He later received a special wheelchair from the project. It is designed and built with an attached desk that met his special needs. This is one of 1,400 assistive devices provided by the project.
The class teacher, Chandrani Widanagamage, is more than happy with the progress Sandaruvan is making.
"He is doing better every day. He is stimulated by this environment.