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Education for some but not for others: Learning support, disability, and free education

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C. W. W. Kannangara: "Talents and ability are not confined to any social class or group and any social system must provide for their emergence by the provision of equal educational opportunities." (from Kannangara Report 1943)

By Ramya Kumar

Kuppi Talk stands for democratising education and educational spaces by addressing issues of access, (in)equality, exclusion and marginalization, within our education systems. This Kuppi Talk draws on conversations with principals/teachers, parents, and students, to look into the everyday forms of violence and exclusion experienced by children with special needs at our schools and universities.

“I could not concentrate or sit in one place, but this was not recognised as a problem by my parents or teachers…it was when I went extreme that the problem was identified, that is when I became violent …. I was bored … .my accumulated frustration finally jumped out as a cry for help.” – Lucky, University student

Lucky, a high performing student with special learning needs, enrolled at a state university, recalled how he faced humiliation, corporal punishment, a three-month suspension, and finally ran away from home to end up at a detention centre. It was only there that Lucky’s potential was recognised by a visiting doctor, who supported him to return to school. “I came out of this system by chance, despite the odds stacked against me, but there are many many children who do not.”

Sri Lanka endorses a policy of inclusive education. According to UNESCO, inclusive education is “a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners.” Implied in this approach is that students with special educational needs and/or disability must be supported to achieve their learning potential. Towards this end, schools and universities should create conducive learning environments that meet the individual needs of children. In reality, however, about a third of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka never go to school, and when they do, most are not identified to be in need of support.

As Deepthi, a parent whose son has special learning needs, explained, “Our education system assumes all children are the same, and, if they are not, there is something very wrong with them.” The Ministry of Education issues guidelines for schools to involve parents in their children’s education. However, this approach has resulted in teachers placing all the responsibility on parents, especially mothers. “When I went for PTA meetings, the teachers would make me feel that [my son] is abnormal and that I was not doing my job.” In fact, because teachers and school administrations do not understand the problem, schooling becomes a toxic experience. “My child was separated from the rest and frequently punished, but these measures did not address the issue.”

As Lucky pointed out, our education system does not have a mechanism to identify and support students with less obvious learning challenges. Instead, these children are punished, and even beaten, for disorderly conduct. Even if identified, there is no organised system for assessment and follow up, which means that parents, who often do not understand the problem, must cope on their own, resulting in poor academic performance and low-self-esteem, among such students. On the other hand, high-performing students, who have exceptional abilities, are compelled to follow the current system of rote learning, and become bored and disengaged, with adverse and far-reaching outcomes.

The Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 1996 stipulates, “No person with a disability shall be discriminated against on the ground of such disability in recruitment for any employment or office or admission to any educational institution.” Accordingly, students with obvious special needs are admitted to special education units in our schools, but what happens once they get there? According to Shanthi, a principal of a school that caters to children with special needs, inclusive education has been watered down to “integrating” such students to the mainstream. “Rather than creating a learning environment that nurtures children with special needs, they are moulded to conform to mainstream education that has little to offer them.” Unsurprisingly, these children often do not perform well in school, and, in a vicious cycle, do not find gainful employment, and cannot live independently.

While certain private schools do have the resources, including trained teachers, to support children with special educational needs, such facilities are not accessible to the vast majority of children in Sri Lanka. Nayana, a principal of a village school in the Central Province, described the ad hoc manner in which a special education unit was set up in her school, with minimal support and resources. In Nayana’s school, of about 500 students, 25 plus children learn in the special education unit. Over half of them have autism spectrum disorder, followed by Down Syndrome, and other undiagnosed problems that make them “slow learners.” Despite varying levels of ability, these children make do with a small classroom and one trained teacher. Although the unit has three teachers—two with no training in special education—the requirement is much higher. The Department of Education appoints one teacher per five students with special educational needs (and one teacher per two students with autism), but most cadre positions remain vacant in village schools. This means that parents, mostly mothers, of children with severe disability, stay on at school to assist with their children’s education.

The education zone in which Nayana’s school is located has two other special education units, which are also desperately under-resourced: “We do not receive support from the educational authorities to develop these units.” As a result, they function as day-care centres without resources to empower students to function independently, making “integration” very difficult. Shanthi, the principal mentioned above, believes that “integration” is practically impossible, other than in rare occasions with high-performing students: “Most special education units do not have teachers with the required training, and the teachers in mainstream classrooms, who have even less expertise, must singlehandedly attend to the needs of “integrated” students as well as their classes.” A major factor here is the lack of strong programmes in special needs education, which means that we do not have teachers with sufficient expertise to teach visually- and hearing-impaired children, and those with neurodevelopmental problems.

In many ways, students with physical disability may have a better deal. Hiran, a university student with a severe physical disability, recalled his experience at primary school when his mother spent the entire day at school during his early years. While Hiran received tremendous support from his teachers and peers, who would go out of their way to move him from one disability inaccessible place to another, he could never function independently as there were no ramps, lifts, or disability accessible washrooms. While these challenges continue at university, where entering a lecture hall is challenging, the education authorities have failed to support students like Hiran to learn independently. The UGC provides little guidance beyond the additional 10 minutes per hour at examinations. Although the UGC’s quality assurance mechanisms recommend institutions to develop policies on disability, they do not provide human and other resources to ensure disability access and accommodation.

Yet, the law, as stipulated in the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 1996, states, “No person with a disability shall, on the ground of such disability, be subject to any liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to, or use of, any building or place which any other member of the public has access to or is entitled to use, whether on the payment of any fee or not.” While remedy for contravention of these provisions are included in the Act, the Disabled Persons (Accessibility) Regulations of 2006, lay down explicit disability accessibility standards, and also specify that all buildings/areas should conform to the standards within three years of the Act, that is by 2009. Twelve years later, in 2021, disability access remains minimal, including at schools and universities. Few seek legal redress, perhaps because judicial procedures are time consuming, expensive and do not offer quick results.

Free education is about equality of opportunity. As stated in the Kannangara Report of 1943, “Talents and ability are not confined to any social class or group and any social system must provide for their emergence by the provision of equal educational opportunities.” Yet, a section of our country’s children are bereft of educational opportunities as the education system fails to support them, and instead relegates their care and education to parents, especially mothers. Last month, the Minister of Education, responding to the threat of continuing trade union action by principals and teachers, declared, “Let us all join hands to give the children of this nation the opportunity to enjoy the right to free education, and thereby protect free education for all.” Rather than coopting free education to undermine trade unions, the Minister should do his job and take steps to protect free education for all, including children with special learning educational needs and disability.

*Names are replaced with pseudonyms.

(The author is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, University of Jaffna)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.



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Impressive Indian scene…

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Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.

Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.

Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.

Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.

Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”

However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.

“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”

Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.

She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.

“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”

Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.

“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.

“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”

Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.

And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”

Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community

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On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).

Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.

The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.

Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.

By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.

We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.

The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.

Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.

This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.

Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.

Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.

Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!

Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.

The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.

All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.

To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.

I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.

The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.

I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.

More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?

It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality

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A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.

It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.

However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.

Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.

The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.

Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.

India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.

The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.

But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.

Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.

Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.

Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.

Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.

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