What are the supporting structures that exist for students like the participants in Unseen:Constellations outside of mainstream education?
Speaking with the artist Alecia Neo and some of the Unseen participants, Genevieve Ann Jeffrey, a former teacher in the Ministry of Education (Singapore), explores how socially constructed misrepresentations, exclusion and discrimination can disable people with impairment, and is an avoidable outcome.
By Genevieve Ann Jeffrey
Education and Disability: Between Inclusion and Support
Social constructs about disability create a barrier to social inclusion. Socially constructed misrepresentations, exclusion and discrimination can disable people with impairment and is an avoidable outcome. It is from these social constructs of disability producing a definition of lack that inclusion becomes an uphill task. What supporting structures exist for these students outside of mainstream education?
In Unseen: Constellations, Alecia Neo worked with seven visually impaired students from Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School (AISS). This school has a history of supporting students with visual impairments for the past 49 years. Other schools supporting visually impaired students for Secondary education in Singapore are Clementi Woods, Dunearn and Bedok South Secondary Schools.
In the project’s beginning, Alecia asked these students how they saw their future selves. Without being given any context, all of them responded with a job that they saw themselves doing in the future. Who they saw themselves as was defined by their careers. Given the importance these students placed on their future careers, the pertinent question would then be if the education system has opened all the doors to them so as to give them as wide a variety of options as possible or if they were limited by their impairment.
Initial attempts to bring education to disabled children resulted in specialist schools that proved to isolate students. They were also not cost effective and things changed with legislation
This is an important question, given that disability is a stronger predictor of low educational outcomes than indicators like gender, rural residences and poverty. In fact, the mean years of education are lower for students with disability with the gap being 20% larger for female students.
Looking overseas, initial attempts to bring education to disabled children resulted in specialist schools that proved to isolate students. They were also not cost effective and things changed with legislation that required integration of children in educational systems.
Speaking with the students from AISS, I tried to understand what special provisions were made for them in their education. A resource room was set aside especially for them. Three teachers help them with any of their schoolwork and to where they could go at any time, as well as aids such as Braille-enabled technology and magnifying equipment and the like, depending on the extent of their impairment and how much they need this equipment.
Five out of the seven students in the project are not dependent on these equipment. In addition, there are also ‘tactiles’ on the first floor which are, essentially, tiles that the students can feel. There is also a special day set aside in the school to raise awareness of the issues that such students face; one student cited this as being important in terms of helping the others in her cohort to understand the specific issues that she faces. They are also exempted from doing physical education, design and technology and some other subjects deemed unsuitable given their impairment.
The visually-impaired students are assigned a special buddy in class, another fellow student, who is supposed to help them with what is written on the board. Classes are conducted as per normal and no special instruction is given during lessons when the students are attending lessons with the other students.
Is there a need then to define these schools as such, and pool resources such as Braille-enabled technology if there is no special educational programme for visually handicapped students? Can such equipment be available in any school that students with impairments choose to go to? There are, after all, gains that come about for these students and society in terms of giving them more freedom in choosing their paths. For example, studies find that inclusive settings of education are more cost effective. What are other implications of greater inclusion of disabled students into mainstream education? Do the benefits of segregating students outweigh the social costs in terms of alienation of this community?
Ghana, Djibouti and Mozambique have targets to incorporate children with mild disabilities into mainstream schools by 2015. Italy’s law has supported inclusive education from the mid 1970s. UNESCO has released guidelines to advise policy makers on promoting inclusion in education. In the early 1990s Vietnam made some moves towards inclusion in education with the setting up of The Centre for Special Education. In the areas where these programs were launched, attendance of students with disabilities increased from 30% to 86% after three years.
On the other hand, what are the benefits of a support system and sense of community that comes from having this shared experience during taxing times in school? In the end, inclusivity is not about ignoring the disability completely. Rather, it is about addressing individual needs to then allow everyone to be at an equal starting point.
What does research say about inclusiveness in the way of including disabled students into mainstream schools? Some literature points to the benefits of specialised schools. Others point to the social and behavioral benefits of inclusion.
One student experienced a peer questioning his place in the school and why he wanted to ‘put himself through’ the school system when it was clearly difficult for him.
Did the students feel any implication of being in a school set aside for visually handicapped students? Some said that there was a sense of them being different. One did agree that people acknowledged his disability it became a defining characteristic.
There is a tendency for society and people that interact with visually handicapped students to put limits physically or academically on these students from their understanding of the situation or lack thereof. For example, one student experienced a peer questioning his place in the school and why he wanted to ‘put himself through’ the school system when it was clearly difficult for him. The suggestion of this peer was that visual disability and mental capacity are intertwined when in fact it is not the case. A lack of exposure to people with tends to create a sense of ‘otherness’ and preconceived notions of ability that can be harmful to students with impairments. They face parents, educators and peers who place limits on them defined more by a false assumption rather than from a place of understanding.
An important finding has been that these social constructs of disability create a situation of low expectations and exclusion from society. The consequences are that the disabled are viewed as needing care and charity. In this regard, the perception of such persons is defined by what they cannot do – their disability overshadows the other aspects of their personhood.
How do we create greater understanding and awareness? What can combat these misunderstandings about a person’s abilities that come about from stereotyping and social constructs? Education and courses are one way, but the most powerful would be interaction between these communities and seeing each other navigate life. An analysis of studies that looked at how contact impacted prejudice found that there was a negative relationship between the two. Exploring this further, the intensity of the contact and the manner in which it is administered would be important to different demographics as the experience could also reinforce stereotypes if done haphazardly.
Visibility exists in thresholds. One consequence of the current system is that the visually handicapped are viewed as those completely blind and provisions are made for them in terms of assistive technology. This results in those “in between”, for example those with low vision, left in the lurch
Unseen: Constellations looks precisely at the “intensity of the contact” between audience and student, collaborator and artist, and student and institution. It negotiates the need to acknowledge the experiences of the seven student collaborators – all of whom are visually impaired to varying extents – whilst exceeding these stereotypes. They do this by exploring issues of romance, friendship, mystery and others – issues that are, on all appearances, ‘normal’. Indeed, a sense of ‘normalcy’ was important to all of those interviewed. By this, I mean the need to not be characterised completely by their impairment; to not be sheltered, and to be able to try and fail without people assuming that they would not be able to accomplish something and not being given opportunities when they would like the options.
Visibility exists in thresholds. One consequence of the current system is that the visually handicapped are viewed as those completely blind and provisions are made for them in terms of assistive technology. This results in those “in between”, for example those with low vision, left in the lurch. Seeing this gap in the system, some parents of children with low vision set up the iC2 Prephouse, Singapore’s first and only institution to help students learn specialised technology and deal with issues that they may face. The lack of Certified Vision Teachers and Orientation & Mobility (O&M) instructors led to the formation of this charity. Integration into mainstream schools is emphasised here where they give specialised assessments of the needs of each student understanding that conditions and experiences are unique and advise schools and educators of the needs of these students. A step in this direction would help integrate students with visual impairments stretch their potential and avoid the current pitfalls that students currently face.
Likewise, creating individualised education plans are in the works in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In asking what supporting structures exist for these students outside of mainstream education, a way forward would be to work with students individually to understand their needs and help them to integrate into society. Another way would be to help society understand them and their needs so that it is less about ‘helping’ them and more about understanding each other and how to interact and create the best scenarios for everyone.
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