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Neurodiversity, inclusive education and quality assurance in Sri Lankan universities

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By Sudesh Mantillake

This article discusses the idea of neurodiversity as a point of departure towards imagining our education to be more inclusive. First, I talk about neurodiversity, the autism spectrum, and the challenges for inclusive education in Sri Lanka and then examine the limitations of the current Quality Assurance process to ensure an inclusive education for students at Sri Lankan universities.

In Sri Lanka, we are familiar with terms like “cultural diversity” and “bio-diversity” but not as much with “neurodiversity.” In public events, when we say, “we celebrate cultural diversity,” we acknowledge that we are a multicultural society and accommodate diverse cultures in our society. Like cultural diversity, neurodiversity acknowledges the diversity in how our brains are neurologically connected and function, making us experience and engage with the world in different ways. For example, when people make jokes with double meanings, some take the words’ literal meaning and not the symbolic meaning. If an individual always understands words literally (not hidden or symbolic meaning), this may signal a neurological condition. For example, Elisabeth Wiklander, who identifies as autistic, is a neurodiversity advocate and a prize-winning cellist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In a TED Talk, Elisabeth claims that she has a very literal mind that constantly clashes with non-verbal and verbal subtleties in social situations. She says, “Jokes and sarcasm fly completely over my head. My mind just takes things in so literally. It loves to analyze everything. My world is a very intense one.” Elisabeth asserts that autism influences her thoughts, imagination, senses, emotions, and how she processes information.

However, since most of society experiences and engages with the world in a particular way, that becomes the “norm” or the dominant societal standard, termed “neurotypicality.” “Neurotypical” individuals think and process information in ways typical within the majority and the dominant culture. Their brains function and process information in the “usual” manner expected by most of society. The normalization of the dominant standard poses a huge challenge for people in different places in the spectrum of neurological differences. Therefore, “neurodiversity” has emerged as a global human rights and social justice movement since the 1990s to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities.”

Autism and Education in Sri Lanka

Although the term neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and learning disabilities. ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. In 2017, the prevalence of ASD in Sri Lanka was estimated to be 1.07%. This means that whether identified as such or not, many of us, our family members, and friends might be on the autism spectrum.

Dennis Mombauer, a researcher and writer who works with SLYCAN Trust, a non-profit think tank in Colombo, is concerned about ASD and education in Sri Lanka. In an article titled Autism in Sri Lanka: Awareness and Acceptance, he ends, “Tens or hundreds of thousands of people will be affected by autism from infancy through adulthood and onto old age, and they need to be accepted for what and how they are. Society as a whole—not only parents, not only doctors and teachers—needs to integrate autistic people and respect their differences from the “neurotypical” majority: it needs to listen to their voices, understand their experiences, and create an environment where they can thrive together with everyone else throughout their lives.” Nimisha Muttiah, a Senior Lecturer with the Department of Disability Studies, University of Kelaniya, in an article titled, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in Sri Lanka – Status quo and Future Directions shows the highly problematic condition of young people with ASD in Sri Lanka, including how they are deprived of their education. The Ministry of Education states that a significant challenge it faces in accommodating neurologically diverse students is the lack of trained teachers.

Is Quality Assurance the answer?

One of the ways Sri Lanka could accommodate the needs of diverse children and young people is to develop an inclusive education system. According to UNICEF, inclusive education is an education system that is inclusive of all students and welcomes and supports them in learning, whoever they are and whatever their abilities or requirements are. Why is our education system not inclusive? People will have different takes on this question. Lack of awareness of discourses like neurodiversity and inclusive education may contribute to our current situation. However, there is no genuine interest, empathy, or political commitment to inclusive education at the policy level. Successive governments, ministers, administrators, professors, lecturers, teachers, and students have generally hailed neurotypicality and, for the most part, remained silent on this issue.

The Quality Assurance (QA) process at our universities is presented as a mechanism to ensure the quality of Sri Lankan higher education institutions (HEI) in accordance with international standards. In theory, this sounds progressive, but does the current QA process accommodate neurodiversity and inclusive education in practice? Although in QA manuals, we find expressions like “provide equal opportunities for students with special needs” and “provide resources and services for students with special needs,” very little is done beyond developing policies on disability at the university/faculty level. The Ministry of Higher Education barely allocates funds to run public universities, much less for advancing inclusive education. Ahilan Kadirgamar elaborated in his recent Kuppi article (21.11.2023) that state funding for universities has come down to 0.25% of GDP. In such a situation, how can we develop infrastructure and recruit trained staff for inclusive education? The QA process should guarantee funds for inclusive education.

Without genuine interest, action, and commitment to diversity, policies are just decorations. When are we going to take action to accommodate neurodiversity in our education system? The Ministry of Higher Education and university administrations often do not even accommodate more visible cultural diversity and ignore the country’s constitutionally imposed language policies. Can we expect acknowledgement of neurodiversity when the ministry and university administrations seem to overlook cultural diversity within its own staff? In October 2023, the Higher Education Division of the Ministry of Education circulated an official letter in Sinhala titled, “Regarding Applying for Foreign Study Leave by University Academics through the Online System” (my translation). Several non-Sinhala speaking/Tamil-speaking academics of the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, where I teach, raised questions about the absence of a Tamil translation. According to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, both Sinhala and Tamil languages are recognized as national and official languages. Government administrators should ensure that Tamil-speaking citizens receive a Tamil translation if the original document is in Sinhala. Perhaps the Ministry would have forwarded English or Tamil translations to universities in the North and East. If so, how about the Tamil-speaking academics in universities in the South? Unfortunately, QA processes fail to allocate resources or set mechanisms to respect and be inclusive of more visible cultural diversity, let alone neurodiversity.

The current QA process encourages us to produce evidence in paper rather than genuinely identify root causes of issues in the higher education sector. The QA should not be only about producing ‘evidence’ that universities adhere to specified standards. In the current Manual for Institutional Review of Sri Lankan Universities and Higher Education Institutions, standard 4.9 specifies “University/HEI has policies and mechanisms to ensure that teaching-learning and assessment strategies provide equal opportunities for students with special needs.” In the same manual, standard 5.7 says, “The University/HEI provides appropriate learning resources, academic support services, delivery strategies, guidance, and infrastructure facilities to meet the needs of students with special needs.” Although our universities produce documented evidence that they adhere to these standards and at times even get an “A” grade following QA review, in reality, students with disabilities face enormous challenges in our universities. Erandika de Silva’s Kuppi article on 10.10.2023 depicts the pathetic circumstances under which students with disabilities learn in our universities. We do not even know about the experience of neurologically diverse students with less visible learning difficulties.

I cannot help but recall the Sinhala saying from a folktale that goes, “lĕḍā mal̤at baḍa suddayi” (the stomach is clean (now) even if the patient is dead) when I see the efforts of QA processes in Sri Lankan universities. If we continue in the current QA trajectory, in the end, after institutional and programme review, we will have to say, “The stomach is clean (now) even if the patient is dead.” What is the purpose of an “A” grade from these reviews if our university is non-functional or dead? We need to safeguard our universities and ensure that they are inclusive educational spaces for neurologically diverse people.

(Sudesh Mantillake teaches at the Department of Fine Arts, University of Peradeniya)

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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Features

Mindset changes and the dangerous ‘Religious War’ rhetoric

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Israeli border police on patrol at the Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem (Pic courtesy Al Jazeera)

Nothing could be more vital at present in the conflict and war zones of the world than positive mindset changes and the wish of the humanist is likely to be that such momentous developments would quickly come to pass in particularly the Middle East. Because in the latter theatre almost every passing hour surfaces problems that call for more than average peace-making capabilities for their resolution.

For instance, the Islamic Supreme Fatwa Council in Palestine has reportedly warned of a ‘Religious War’ in the wake of recent allegations that Israel is planning to prevent the Muslim community from having access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem in the month of Ramadan. If true, this development is likely to further compound the Gaza violence and take it along an even more treacherous track. This is on account of the fact that religious passions, if not managed effectively, could prove most volatile and destructive.

As pointed out in this column previously, peace movements on both sides of the main divide in the region would need to quickly activate themselves, link-up and work as one towards the de-escalation of the conflict. What the Middle East and the world’s other war zones urgently need are persons and groups who are endowed with a pro-peace mind set who could work towards an elimination of the destructive attitudes that are instrumental in keeping the conflicts concerned raging.

This could prove an uphill task in the Middle East in particular. For, every passing minute in the region is seeing a hardening of attitudes on both sides in the wake of issues growing out of the violence. Accordingly, if peace-making is to be contemplated by the more moderate sections in the conflict, first, we need to see a lull in the violence. Achieving such a de-escalation in the violence has emerged as a foremost need for the region.

Right now, the Israeli state is showing no signs of climbing down from its position of seeing a decisive end to the Hamas militants and their support bases and going forward this policy stance could get in the way of de-escalating the violence even to a degree.

On the other hand, it would not be realistic on the part of the world community to expect a mindset change among Israeli government quarters and their supporters unless and until the security of the Israeli state is ensured on a permanent basis. Ideally, the world should be united on the position that Israel’s security is non-negotiable; this could be considered a veritable cornerstone of Middle East peace.

Interestingly, the Sri Lankan state seems to have come round to the above view on a Middle East peace settlement. Prior to the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime taking this stance, this columnist called repeatedly over the past few months in this commentary, in fact since October 7th last year, for the adoption of such a policy. That is, a peace settlement that accords priority to also the security needs of the Israelis. It was indicated that ensuring the security and stability of the Palestinians only would fall short of a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East imbroglio.

However, in the case of the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime, the above change in policy seems to be dictated almost wholly by economic survival considerations rather than by any well thought out principle or a sense of fairness to all relevant stakeholders.

For example, close on the heels of the regime playing host to the Israeli Transport Minister recently, it accorded a reverential welcome to the Iranian Foreign Minister as well. From the viewpoint of a small country struggling to survive, this is the way to go, since it needs every morsel of economic assistance and succour.

However, if permanent peace is to have a chance in the Middle East it would need to be based on the principle of justice to all the main parties to the conflict. Seen from this point of view, justice and fairness should be accorded to the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. Both parties, that is, should live within stable states.

The immediate need, though, is to at least bring a lull to the fighting. This will enable the Palestinian population in the Gaza to access humanitarian assistance and other essential needs. Besides, it could have the all-important effect of tempering hostile attitudes on both sides of the divide.

The US is currently calling for a ‘temporary ceasefire’ to the conflict, but the challenge before Washington is to get the Israeli side to agree to it. If the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent pronouncements are anything to go by, the US proposal is unlikely to make any impression on Tel Aviv. In other words, the Israeli Right is remaining an obstacle to a ceasefire or even some form of temporary relief for the affected populations, leave alone a political solution. However, changing their government is entirely a matter for the Israeli people.

Accordingly, if a stable peace is to be arrived at, hostile, dogmatic attitudes on both sides may need to be eased out permanently. Ideally, both sides should see themselves as having a common future in a peacefully shared territory.

Peace groups and moderate opinion should be at centre stage on both sides of the divide in the region for the facilitation of such envisaged positive changes. The UN and democratic opinion worldwide should take it upon themselves to raise awareness among both communities on the need for a political solution. They should consider it incumbent upon themselves to work proactively with peace groups in the region.

The world is a vast distance from the stage when both parties to the conflict could even toy with the idea of reconciliation. Because reconciliation anywhere requires the relevant antagonists to begin by saying, ‘I am sorry for harming you.’ This is unthinkable currently, considering the enmity and acrimony that have built up over the years among the volatile sections of both communities.

However, relevant UN agencies and global democratic opinion could begin by convincing the warring sections that unless they cooperate and coexist, mutual annihilation could be their lot. Mindset changes of this kind are the only guarantors of lasting peace and mindset changes need to be worked on untiringly.

As this is being written, the ICJ is hearing representations from numerous countries on the Middle East situation. The opinions aired thus far are lopsided in that they do not present the Israeli viewpoint on the conflict. If a fair solution is to be arrived at to the conflict Israel’s concerns too would need to be taken into account expeditiously.

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Dubai scene brightening up for SL fashion designers

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Sri Lankans are lighting up the scene in Dubai, not only as musicians, but in other fields, as well.

At the recently held Ceylon Food Festival, in Dubai, a fashion show was held, with Sri Lankan designers doing the needful.

The fashion show highlighted the creations of Pubudu Jayasinghe, Tehani Rukshika and Peshala Rasanganee Wickramasuriya, in three different segments, with each designer assigned 10 models.

The fashion show was choreographed by Shashi Kaluarachchi, who won the Miss Supermodel Globe International 2020, held in India, and was 1st runner-up at the Mr., Miss and Mrs. Sri Lanka, in Dubai.

Shashi says she was trained by Brian Karkoven and his know-how gave her a good start to her modelling career.

She has done many fashions shows in Sri Lanka, as well as in Dubai, and has worked with many pioneers in the fashion designing field.

The designers involved in the fashion show, in Dubai, were:

Pubudu Jayasinghe,

a 22-year-old creative and skilled makeup artist and nail technician. With a wealth of experience gained from working in various salons and participating in makeup and fashion projects in both Dubai and Sri Lanka, he has honed his talents in the beauty industry. Passionate about fashion, Pubudu has also acquired knowledge and experience in fashion designing, modelling, and choreography, showcasing his multifaceted expertise in the dynamic world of fashion.

Tehani Rukshika,

who studied at St Joseph’s Girls School, Nugegoda, says she went to Dubai, where her mom works, and joined the Westford University in fashion designing faculty for her Masters. Her very first fashion show was a Sri Lankan cultural event, called ‘Batik’. “This was my first event, and a special one, too, as my mom was modelling an Arabic Batik dress.”

Shashi Kaluarachchi

Peshala Rasanganee Wickramasuriya

has been living in Dubai for the past 21 years and has a batik shop in Dubai, called 20Step.

According to Shashi, who is on vacation in Sri Lanka, at the moment, there will be more Sri Lankan fashion shows in Dubai, highlighting the creations of Sri Lankan designers.

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Features

A mask of DATES…

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Yes, another one of my favourites…dates, and they are freely available here, so you don’t need to go searching for this item. And they are reasonably priced, too.

Okay, readers, let’s do it…with dates, of course – making a mask that will leave your skin feeling refreshed, and glowing

To make this mask, you will need 03-04 dates, and 02 tablespoons of milk.

Remove the seeds and soak the dates, in warm milk, for about 20 minutes. This method will soften the dates and make them easier to blend.

After the 20 minutes is up, put the dates in a blender and blend until you have a smooth paste. Check to make sure there are no lumps, or chunks, left.

Add the 02 tablespoons of milk to the blended date paste and mix well.

Okay, now gently apply this mixture to your face, avoiding the eye area. Use your fingertips, or a clean brush, to evenly distribute the mask all over your face.

Once the mask is applied, find a comfortable place to sit, or lie down. Relax for about 15-20 minutes, allowing the mask to work its magic on your skin.

After the mentioned time has passed, rinse off the mask with lukewarm water. Gently massage your face while rinsing to exfoliate any dead skin cells.

After rinsing off the mask, pat dry your face with a soft towel, and then follow up with your favourite moisturizer to lock in the hydration and keep your skin moisturized.

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