Friday, May 24, 2013

Creating an inclusive environment in the classroom for children with disabilities

Srey Ma (left) in her classroom at Hang Khoban Primary School.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Reid
It is Tuesday morning at Hang Khoban Primary School in Samaki Commune, Stung Treng Province, north-eastern Cambodia where classes are in full session. The wooden school is small with three classrooms and seven teachers, but for its 77 students, it is a child-friendly environment that welcomes children from all walks of life, including those with disabilities.

Sreng Srey Ma, aged 11, is from the Lao ethnic minority community and she has a physical disability. She speaks fluent Khmer and Lao and understands a little English. Her dream is to become a famous pop singer like her idol Aok Sokun Kanhna (a famous Cambodian singer). She shows symptoms of a form of muscular dystrophy, which is a physical disability that affects her movement. In 2008 when Srey Ma enrolled in Grade 1, she was very shy and anxious about how the children and teachers would treat her because of her disability.

“When I first started school I was excited but a little worried, but nobody behaved differently towards me. They actually helped me in the classroom. If I had any problems with my reading, my classmate would help me,” recalls Srey Ma. “My teacher is very helpful, he teaches me nicely and he uses gentle words. He never blames me for not reading well. I sit at the front of the classroom all the time and I can see and hear clearly.”

School Director, Mr Tok at Hang Khoban Primary School.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Reid
Hang Khoban Primary School Director, Tok In Porng, joined the school in 2008, the same year that he attended a three-day UNICEF-supported training course in ‘inclusive education’, conducted by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport in Stung Treng province. Mr. Tok was one of 148 course participants (including primary school teachers, school directors and directors of Provincial Offices of Education) who were equipped with basic knowledge on inclusive education and how to identify children with disabilities in their communities.

“Through the training, I learnt how to pay more attention to children with any learning difficulty not just those who are disabled. I found the training very useful as it provided me with a good understanding of teaching children with disabilities, and all about inclusive education. After the training, I shared my new found knowledge with all of the teachers and with colleagues who attend the monthly provincial technical meetings. When Srey Ma joined the school, we familiarised ourselves with her condition and monitored her closely. We monitor teaching practices during classroom observation and discuss how these can be improved in supervision.  To prevent any negative stigma associated with disabilities, we focus on educating all of the children about disabilities and ask them to imagine how it would feel like to have those disabilities. Being disabled is extremely difficult and children with disabilities need support from their fellow students,” said Mr. Tok.

The policy on ‘Education for Children with Disabilities’ and the inclusive education training programme were developed in 2008, with support from UNICEF, the Disability Action Council, and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, to ensure the right of all children with disabilities to equal education with their non-disabled peers.

Every year, two to three weeks before the school term begins, Mr. Tok, along with members of the School Committee, organises a campaign in Stung Treng village to enrol the most vulnerable children in school. The campaign highlights the importance of education, encourages parents of children with disabilities of primary school age to enrol them and follows up to ensure they attend on a regular basis.

This small village, with a population of 4807 residents, has just over 100 children under the age of 18; about 10 of them have disabilities. Last year, as a result of the campaign, every child in the village of primary school age was enrolled in the school. “We always communicate with parents when their children are absent from school and find out why they are absent”, said Mr. Tok. “I am pleased to say Srey Ma has a good attendance rate and is only absent when she is feeling unwell.”

Currently in Grade 5, Srey Ma lives five minutes away from her school. On most days she walks to school. However, when she finds it painful to do so, her best friend Kanika carries Srey Ma on her back.

Srey Ma’s older brother 13-year-old Sreng Chantrea at his home in Samaki Commune.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Reid
“As I get older it’s more difficult for me to move around. I fall a lot and I can’t run. I often feel tired so my parents took me to the doctor and she gave me tablets which I have to take every day,” explains Srey Ma.  “My friends are good to me because when I do fall, they are always there to help me up.”

Srey Ma is not the only person in her family to have a disability; her 13-year-old brother Sreng Chantrea has a similar physical disability and also attended Hang Khoban Primary School. “I really liked it there,” said Chantrea, “When I started I was six years old and in Grade 1. I was never worried about being treated differently and my classmates were always nice to me. The teachers gave me extra attention when I struggled with my maths, and other students would carry my bag or buy snacks for me.”

As a result of his success at primary school, Chantrea is now in Grade 7 at Hun Sen Samaki Lower Secondary School, where he is the only child with a disability.

Father of Srey Ma and Chantrea, Mr. Leav Kimsreng is proud of his children and happy that inclusive primary education has had positive impact on their lives. “I’m happy they are doing very well educationally at school – they get good reports. I am sad about the children’s condition but I have to accept it. It’s a relief that Chantrea and Srey Ma are supported in their respective schools and this motivates me to work even more to help them excel further with their studies.”

By Angelique Reid

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