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



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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Lingering world disorder and the UN’s role



The 9/11 Twin Tower horror in New York.

Russia could very well be questioning the legitimacy of the UN system by currently challenging the right of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to arbitrate in the conflicting accusations of genocide brought against each other by it and Ukraine. Russia has countered Ukraine’s charge of genocide, occasioned by its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, by accusing the latter of perpetrating the same crime in the rebel region of Eastern Ukraine, which is seen as being within the Russian sphere of influence.

As is known, when Russia did not participate in a hearing sanctioned by the ICJ on the charge of genocide brought against it in March 2022, the ICJ called on Russia to halt the invasion forthwith. Russia, however, as reported in some sections of the international media, reacted by claiming that the ICJ has ‘no jurisdiction over the case since Ukraine’s request does not come within the scope of the Genocide Convention.’ The main sides to the Ukraine conflict are at present reportedly stating their positions in the ICJ with regard to the correctness of this claim.

Whereas, the law-abiding the world over would have expected the ICJ’s word to prevail in the Ukraine conflict, this does not seem to be the case. More precisely, it is the moral authority of the UN that is being questioned by Russia. Given this situation, the observer cannot be faulted for believing that Russia is ‘sticking to its guns’ of favouring a military solution in the Ukraine.

Considering the foregoing and the continuing lawlessness in other geographical regions, such as South-West Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, the commentator is justified in taking the position that little or nothing has been gained by the world community by way of fostering international peace over the decades.

Most distressing is the UN’s seeming helplessness in the face of international disorder, bloodshed and war. The thorny questions from the 9/11 New York twin-tower terror attacks, for instance, are remaining with humanity.

One of the most dreaded questions is whether the UN Charter has been rendered a dead letter by the forces of lawlessness and those wielders of overwhelming military might who couldn’t care less for moral scruples. Those state actors who display these traits risk being seen as destruction-oriented subversives or terrorists who are impervious to civilizational values.

Commentators are right when they point to the need for UN reform. This is, in fact, long overdue. Of the original ‘Big Five’ who went on to constitute the permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC) at the end of World War 11 and who oversaw the establishment of the UN, only the US and China retain major power status in the true sense of the phrase today.

The rest of the original heavyweights cannot be considered ‘spent forces’, but there are other powers of more recent origin who could easily vie for their positions. Some of these are India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Indonesia. Inducting some of the latter into the UNSC could help constitute a more globally representative UNSC. That is, they will help put together an UNSC which is more faithfully reflective of the current global power distribution.

Theoretically, a more widely representative and inclusive UNSC could be a check against the arbitrary exercise of power by the more ambitious, expansionary and authoritarian members of the UNSC but a foremost challenge facing the UN is to induce such new members of the UNSC into representing the vital and legitimate interests of the ordinary publics within these states and internationally. Minus such representation of the world’s powerless UN reform could come to nought. In fact, this could be described as a prime challenge before the UN which could decide its enduring relevance.

Admittedly, the challenge is complex and defies easy resolution. Not all the countries that are seen as prospective UNSC members are democratic in orientation. That is, they would not be people-friendly or egalitarian. Most of them are governed by power elites that are part of what has been described as the ‘Transnational Capitalist Class’ and could be expected to be repressive and parasitic rather than caring or egalitarian. How then could they be expected to be committed to re-distributive justice within their countries, for example?

In the short and medium terms, the UN system could bring into being systems and institutions that could make it comparatively difficult for the power elites of the world to be parasitic, exploitive, self-serving and unconscionable. Strengthening and giving added teeth to systems that could prove effective against money-laundering and allied practices of self-aggrandizement is one way out.

Ironically, it is perhaps the UN that could lay the basis for and provide these mechanisms most effectively and non-obtrusively. It would need to work more with governments and publics on these fronts and lay the foundation for the necessary accountability procedures within states. It should prepare for the long haul.

In the longer term, it’s the coming into existence of democracy-conscious governments and ruling strata that must be sought. Here too the UN could play a significant role. Its numerous agencies could prove more proactive and dynamic in inculcating and teaching the core values of democracy to particularly poor and vulnerable populations that could fall prey to anti-democratic, parochial political forces that thrive on division and discord.

UN aid could be even directly tied to the establishment and strengthening of democratic institutions in particularly impoverished countries and regions. Thus will the basis be laid for younger leaders with a strong democratic vision and programmatic alternative for their countries. Hopefully, such issues would get some airing in the current UN General Assembly sessions.

Accordingly, the broad-basing of the UNSC is integral to UN reform but the progressive world cannot stop there. It would need to ensure the perpetuation of the UN system by helping to bring into being polities that would respect this cardinal international organization which has as its prime aim the fostering of world peace. Democracy-conscious populations are an urgent need and systems of education that advocate the core values of democracy need to be established and strengthened worldwide.

The coming into being of rivals to the current Western-dominated world order, such as the BRICS bloc, needs to be welcomed but unless they are people-friendly and egalitarian little good will be achieved. Besides, undermining the UN and its central institutions would prove utterly counter-productive.

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Country Roads …concert for children



Sponsors and Country Music Foundation officials - from left: Dmitri Cooray (Jetwing), Maljini Jayasekera (Cargills), Feizal Samath (President CMF), Susaan Bandara (LOLC), Deepal Perera (SriLankan Airlines) and Spencer Manualpillai (Dilmah)

I’ve always wondered why those who have hit the big time in their profession, as singers, have not cared to reach out to the needy.

They generally glorify themselves, especially on social media, not only with their achievements, but also with their outfits, etc. – all status symbols.

I’m still to see some of the big names grouping together to help the thousands who are suffering, at this point in time – children, especially.

However, I need to commend the Country Music Foundation of Sri Lanka for tirelessly working to bring some relief, and happiness, to children, in this part of the world.

Country Roads is said to be Sri Lanka’s and South Asia’s longest running charity concert for children, and this year, they say, the show will be even better.

This concert has consistently donated 100% of its proceeds to children’s charities in Sri Lanka. Over the past 35 years, this has resulted in several million rupees worth of aid, all of which has contributed directly to addressing the most pressing issues faced by children in Sri Lanka, a common practice since the concert’s first edition was held in 1988.

In 2014, the concert contributed Rs. 500,000 to Save the Children Sri Lanka, to support its mother-and-child programme for local plantations. During the same year, another Rs. 100,000 was given to the Oxonian Heart Foundation, to help treat impoverished and destitute children suffering from heart disease, while a further Rs. 100,000 was donated to a poor family caring for a special needs child. In commemoration of its landmark 25th anniversary concert in 2013, CMF donated a million rupees to aid in a special UNICEF project.

Astrid Brook from the UK

The 2023 musical extravaganza will feature the bright lights and panoramic cityscape of Colombo, as its backdrop, as it will be held at the picturesque Virticle by Jetwing, which is situated high above the city, on the 30th floor of the Access Towers building, in Union Place, Colombo 2.

The 35th anniversary Country Roads concert for children will take place on Saturday, 7th October, 2023.

Feizal Samath, President of the Country Music Foundation (CMF), the concert organisers, commented: “We are very much looking forward to this event as it’s being held after a lapse of five years, due to unavoidable circumstances.”

Fan favourites the Mavericks from Germany and Astrid Brook from the UK will once again return to headline the 2023 concert, and joining them on stage will be local outfit Cosmic Rays, as well as the Country Revival Band, with Feizal and Jury.

Dirk (from the Mavericks) has this to say to his Sri Lankan fans: “2018 was the last time we were in your beautiful country with the Mavericks band. Then Corona came and with it a long break. I missed you very much during this time.

“It has now been five years since my last visit to Sri Lanka. A lot has changed. The sponsorship that has always made this trip possible for us is gone. But we didn’t just want to end this tradition, which we have learned to love so much since 1992. That’s why we’re travelling to Sri Lanka this year entirely at our own expense, because it’s an affair of the heart for us.

Mavericks from Germany

“We very much hope that it won’t be the last Maverick performance in Sri Lanka. We hope that this unique journey will continue, that there will also be a Country Roads concert in the years to come.”

The 35th anniversary edition of the Country Roads concert for children will be supported by Official Venue Virticle by Jetwing, and Official Airline SriLankan Airlines, as well as its other partners, Jetwing Colombo Seven, Cargills, LOLC, and Firefly.

Tickets are currently available, for a charitable donation of Rs 2,000 each, at Cargills Food City outlets at Kirulapone, Kohuwela (Bernards), Majestic City, Mount Lavinia (junction) and Staples Street.

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Healthy, Glowing Skin



Give your skin a boost by including the following into your diet:

* Avocados:

Avocados contain healthy fats which can help your skin stay moisturised and firm.

They also contain vitamin C and E – two important nutrients that your body need to support healthy skin and fight free radical formation.

Avocados are also rich in biotin, a B vitamin that some nutritionists believe can help promote healthy skin and hair. A deficiency of biotin can lead to skin problems, such as rashes, ache, psoriasis, dermatitis and overall itchiness.

* Carrots:

Carrots are rich in vitamin A, which fights against sunburns, cell death, and wrinkles. Vitamin A also adds a healthy, warm glow to your skin.

You can get vitamin A by consuming provitamin A through fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products. Your body then converts beta-carotene into vitamin A to protect your skin from the sun.

Provitamin A can also be found in oranges, spinach, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, bell peppers, broccoli and more.

* Dark Chocolate:

Dark chocolate is beneficial for your skin because cocoa powder boasts a bunch of antioxidants. These antioxidants hydrate and smoothen your skin, making your skin less sensitive to sunburn and improves the blood flow of your skin. Make a healthy choice by opting for a bar of dark chocolate with 70% cocoa for more antioxidants and lesser added sugar.

* Green Tea:

Green tea has been said to protect the skin against external stressors and ageing. This is because it is antioxidant-rich and contains catechins that protect your skin, reduce redness, increase hydration, and improve elasticity.

A diet rich in antioxidants along with adequate hydration may even out your skin texture, strengthen your skin barrier and improve your overall skin health.

Avoid adding milk to green tea as the combination can reduce the effects of the antioxidants present in green tea.

Additional tips for healthy skin…

Don’t forget to stay hydrated because water plays a big part in the appearance of your skin. Water ensures your skin has enough moisture, which reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps with nutrient absorption, removal of toxins and blood circulation.

Besides food and water, it is important to observe proper hygiene. This means no touching your face until you’ve washed your hands. Your hands carry more bacteria than you think and the occasional touch here and there can add up. After a long day out, cleanse your face thoroughly.

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