Every student has unique characteristics, talents, and interests. While some master different languages or are passionate about history, others prefer mathematical challenges and science projects. But each individual has a unique path through life, with different social, emotional, physical and intellectual conditions, which are overlooked by schools which use standardized methods of teaching. To respect the different forms and rhythms of learning, inclusive educational environments, which are historically associated only with those who teach students with disabilities, have the potential to guarantee the participation of students while at the same time understanding the specificities of each individual.
To celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, Porvir presents a series of reports on Inclusive Education, a concept that benefits every child, adolescent, young adult or adult in the classroom, including students with disabilities, developmental disorders and exceptional skills or giftedness.
Among the fundamental principles of inclusive education is the understanding that access to education is an unconditional right for everyone. For the journalist and writer Claudia Werneck, founder of the Escola de Gente (“Our School”) NGO in Rio de Janeiro, an inclusive educational environment is the best example of what a school can be like if the idea of the public good is taken to its natural conclusion. “Inclusive education is the foundation of society. It is nothing more than the natural consequence of a quality school for everyone,” she explains.
Inclusive education is what education should be like for everyone. It should create meanings, open possibilities, allow participation and be connected with reality.
In describing inclusion as the only way to build a democratic country, Claudia says that the challenge for schools is not how to deal with children with disabilities, but to understand the many ways there are to be a student. “Inclusive education considers each child as a being in a specific phase of life,” she says. However, educational institutions often fail to consider different ways of learning when they organize their procedures, with students placed in rows of desks and asked to sit for hours performing the same tasks. According to experts such as Claudia, disabilities only highlight the damage caused by an educational model that no longer makes sense to students and does not meet the needs of the 21st century.
“Inclusive education is what education should be like for everyone. It should create meanings, open possibilities, allow participation and be connected with reality,” agrees researcher Denise Crispim, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy. According to Denise, students with disabilities make schools rethink what should already be applied to every pupil, such as planning activities in advance.
When her daughter reached elementary school age, Denise says she had trouble finding her a school. “There is still a huge gap between what we consider individualized practices and what actually happens in schools.” She says there is also anxiety and concern on the part of the family, which reinforces the need to strengthen the relationship between schools and family members. “The family is a fundamental part of the education processes. A disabled child may have individual requirements that the family understands best,” she explains.
Although there is no ready-made recipe for creating an inclusive school, focusing on more student-centered educational processes can open up some interesting pathways. The Salamanca Statement on principles, policies and practices in special education highlights other aspects necessary for the successful construction of an environment that embraces diversity. Curriculum, buildings, school organization, pedagogy, assessment, staff, the school philosophy, and activities are just a few of the elements cited in the United Nations resolution.
Ivana de Siqueira, the secretary for Continuing Education, Literacy, Diversity and Inclusion of the MEC (the Ministry of Education) also believes that inclusion, as a principle of an educational policy, presupposes more than thinking about infrastructure, the initial and continuous technical training of teachers and the creation of accessibility in schools. “It is a movement that implies social and cultural transformations in a school context that is characterized by diversity in processes of learning and development. In other words, it implies sharing responsibilities among all the participants of the educational system.”
Achievements and challenges in Brazil
In recent decades, coinciding with a growing worldwide education for all movement, Brazil has made important advances in the field of educational policies aimed at guaranteeing access to and remaining in school. The National Policy on Special Education from the Perspective of Inclusive Education, elaborated by the MEC in 2008, for example, defines principles and actions that must be implemented to guarantee regular schooling and Specialized Educational Assistance for all students.
The human diversity management administrator and specialist Rodrigo Hübner Mendes points out that the country has made some important progress during this period, such as increased enrollment in regular education classes. “We had a context where the majority of enrollments were in a segregated environment. Now we can celebrate the fact that about 80% of primary education enrollments of special education students occur in inclusive environments,” says the founder of the Instituto Rodrigo Mendes, an organization dedicated to promoting inclusion.
Among these achievements, he also highlights the resignification, on the part of all educators, of the right to education of people with disabilities and the transformation of special education as a teaching modality, with the area now seen as a complementary, rather than a substitutive form of schooling. “I’ve been studying policies and practices all over the world. The results of this research shows that Brazil has an extremely advanced and pioneering policy in the construction of inclusive education systems, although we still face great challenges to make this a reality in every school,” he says.
For the education specialist Liliane Garcez, the most important of these challenges is articulating and mainstreaming special education from a perspective that is inclusive in every sense. “The paradigm that we haven’t managed to break is that schools understand that these students are part of the overall group of students, and that these teachers are also part of the wider faculty,” she says. What happens in a multifunctional resource room, which complements or supplements students’ education, needs to be reflected in the classroom.
Managers, coordinators, teachers and professionals from the area of specialized education service should act collaboratively to make it clear that all students are the responsibility of all educators. “What we have noticed is that schools that adopt a more collaborative approach begin to develop a more pedagogically sensitive view,” she notes. In terms of teacher training, Liliane mentions that it is important to support teachers and provide contextual reading tools. “How can I take a child out of the literacy situation he finds himself in?” she says.
According to national policy wording, students with disabilities are “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensorial impediments, which in interaction with various barriers may have restricted their full and effective participation in school and in society.” Liliane notes that the impediment becomes a deficiency when it encounters barriers that do not allow participation. “It all applies to every child, but for some we must break down barriers.”
When we come across transforming and innovative schools, we can see that many of them have effectively included children with disabilities by prioritizing the issues of atmosphere, welcoming students and respecting differences
When making her classroom more inclusive, English teacher Raquel Gonzaga says that it was important to put herself in the place of the student. “Communication with pupils is also fundamental for knowing what works and what doesn’t work,” explains Raquel, who is also a Google-certified educator and a blogger on education technology and apps.
She says she started using cell phones to adapt content and include a visually impaired student in her English classes, transforming written messages into voice stimuli through a QR Code-based application. To develop a pedagogical strategy, she emphasizes that it is important to observe and get to know the student, as each pupil learns in their own way. When teaching another student with a visual impairment, for example, she has already thought of new methodologies based on the pupil’s interests and individualities. “Empathy is an essential tool,” she says.
Innovation is also inclusion
Maria Antonia Goulart, co-founder and general coordinator of the Down Movement and mother of a student with Down’s Syndrome, says inclusion studies describe best practices as those that are effective for all children, such as personalization, mediation among peers, education through hands on projects and activities. ” When we come across transforming and innovative schools, we can observe that many of them have effectively included children with disabilities by prioritizing the issues of atmosphere, welcoming students and respecting differences,” she says.
According to Maria Antonia, everyone benefits from the building of an inclusive educational environment. “We never think that students who aren’t blind might also need sensory information to understand some things. When we offer this option, we awaken various perceptions in children. The whole group will learn much more together.”
The benefits also help teachers and the entire school community, according to principal Rosângela Fonsêca of the Escola Francisco Augusto Bacurau, in the municipal region of Rio Branco, in the state of Acre. At her school, inclusion is treated as a priority in the school’s pedagogical planning and employees often gather to discuss the issue collectively or to attend training meetings. “We noticed a big difference in the school, not just from the employees, but from the whole community.”
In its Inclusive Education series of articles, Porvir will address the main challenges for inclusion and how educational innovations can create educational environments that respect the individualities of all. Over the coming weeks, you can read reports and practical experiences from teachers, specialists, researchers and families of students with disabilities.
* Translated by James Young