Building A More Inclusive, Equitable World For Persons With Disabilities
The following is Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts Mahendra Reddy’s statement on International Day for Persons with Disabilities.
Every year on December 3, since 1992, it has been marked by the United Nations to observe International Day for Persons with Disabilities.
This is a significant day on which the contributions and achievements of people with disabilities are honoured, celebrated and promoted. Celebrations on this day promote and stimulate awareness of the rights of people with disabilities, and challenge stigma, marginalisation and discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities which can prevent people with disabilities from participating in school, work and their communities alongside their peers.
The theme for this year’s International Day is “Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want”. This theme notes the recent adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the role of these goals in building a more inclusive and equitable world for persons with disabilities.
Sustainable Development Goal 4 and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Sustainable Development Goal 4 focuses on quality education and aims to: ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
This goal requires all nations to make efforts to improve access to all levels of schooling so that all students, including those with disabilities, can participate in quality education opportunities.
Celebrating International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 2016 is also an opportunity to reflect on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which has been effective from 2008.
The Convention, an International Human Rights Treaty, also promotes education for all, specifically guiding nations to support the inclusion of children with disability in mainstream schools alongside their peers, so that they have the opportunity to participate in quality education in an equitable way. This Convention has aided to change people’s views towards people with disabilities.
The people with disabilities are no longer only seen as those in need of charity, medical management and protection but are now fully accepted as full and equal members of the society.
Special needs education and education for students with disabilities
The Government of the Day’s free education scheme inculcates educational movement at all levels including Special Needs Education and Education for Children with disabilities.
Education for students with special needs has been in existence in Fiji since the 1960’s, when some Catholic Church schools such as, St Joseph’s Secondary School and Marist Brothers High School enrolled students with disabilities. However, students with severe or less visible disabilities such as, hearing impairment and intellectual disability were still getting left out.
In 1967, Fiji’s first Special School, Hilton Special School, was established by the Fiji Crippled Children’s Society to provide education for students with severe physical and hearing impairments.
Later, more Special Schools were established around the country; to date there are 15 Special Schools and two Vocational Training Centres specifically for persons with disabilities. The important work of these schools was guided by Fiji’s first policy on education for children with disabilities, which was accepted in 2010.
While Special Schools are a significant option for children with disabilities in Fiji, they do face certain challenges to support all children with disability in Fiji.
They are located mainly in town areas, thus, unless local schools are inclusive, access to education for children who live in the outer islands and rural areas is very limited. Having students with disabilities attend mainstream schools, known as inclusive education, allows children to be educated within their neighbourhood schools, close to home.
Strengthening Education for children with disabilities
The Ministry of Education has been making efforts to strengthen inclusive education options for children with disabilities and their families across Fiji, while continuing to support the services that Special Schools provide children with particular and complex disabilities.
The Ministry has been working with key stakeholders particularly, the parents and getting them to fully involve in getting their children to schools and supporting their educational development.
Together with the Access to Quality Education Program (AQEP), the Special and Inclusive Education Unit at the Ministry of Education has been working since 2012 to introduce and test a model of inclusive education that allows children with disabilities to attend schools close to their home.
This has involved the establishment of five Inclusive Education Demonstration Schools.
AQEP and MoEHA have implemented a number of activities to support children with disabilities’ access to a quality education in these schools, including the employment of teacher aides, training of teachers and teacher aides in inclusive education, awareness raising sessions, regular mentoring and monitoring visits, renovations to schools to improve access and learning environments, provision of resources such as, the Toolkit for Disability Inclusive Education in Fiji, equipment provision (Braille machine, white canes, desktop computer with JAWS (Job Access with Speech) software, sign language dictionaries), and water and sanitation activities.
These activities have contributed to an increasing number of children with disabilities participating in schools close to their homes; in 2012, six children with disabilities attended these schools, and in 2016 there are 84.
Experiences from these schools have positively reflected our Ministry’s efforts to establish additional inclusive schools across the country. Evaluations have indicated that key interventions such as, the employment of Teacher Aides to support inclusion, modification of school infrastructure so that it is accessible to all, capacity development for teachers and the provision of adequate teaching and learning resources and assistive aids are critical for inclusive education to work well.
Special and inclusive education policy 2017 – 2020: Implementation and monitoring
After analysing the contemporary demands of Special and Inclusive Education, a review of the former Policy on Effective Implementation of Special Education in Fiji, 2013 – 2016 was carried out. The Ministry’s new Special and Inclusive Education Policy 2017 – 2020, and a corresponding Implementation Plan was then formalised. The Policy recognizes the efforts made under the previous policy to increase Ministry of Education’s support for special schools, and to pilot inclusive education within mainstream schools.
The Special and Inclusive Education Policy 2017 – 2020 seeks to extend and improve options for students with disabilities to attend mainstream schools close to their homes, while supporting Special Schools to continue to play a key role as technical agencies, and supportive school options for the students with specific or complex disabilities who may need them.
Monitoring and evaluation of the Policy and Implementation Plan requires robust data about inclusive schools and the students with disabilities who attend them.
At the same time, as developing the policy and implementation plan, the MoEHA has been working closely with AQEP to reform the way disability data is collected and reported within the Ministry of Education’s data information system – FEMIS (Fiji Education Management Information System). Tools for the collection of reliable data about students with disability and the schools in which they are enrolled have been comprehensively tested, and staff across the education system have been trained in their use.
The reports available will strengthen the capacity of teachers to understand who does and who does not have a disabled person in their classrooms, and assist them to adapt their classroom practices in order to improve education quality, and where necessary, provide reasonable accommodations for students during learning and assessment activities.
The future for children with disabilities in Fiji is increasingly bright.
The Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts plans to further strengthen and support the inclusion of children with special needs at all levels, including ECE, Primary, Secondary and further education. We need the collaborative input of all stakeholders to increase our concerted effort towards programs and support services. We acknowledge the support that we get from the Disabled People’s Organizations through the Fiji National Council for Disabled Persons. Through a collective approach, we can put in place the missing links that is much needed for education. Where children with disabilities have access to quality education, they are more likely to learn skills and gain confidence which assist them to attain paid work in adulthood, which can break the cycle of poverty that people with disabilities around the world are often trapped in.
Inclusive education is also beneficial for society. By educating children with and without disabilities together in the same classrooms and schools, we are creating a nation where equality is always upheld, and diversity is expected, accepted and respected.
This is a key area of development for the Bainimarama Government and the Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts intends to ensure that education delivers this initiative efficiently.
Through our efforts to strengthen inclusive education in schools and within Ministry systems and processes, the Ministry is working hard to help shape this new world. With support from our development partners, notably the Australian aid program through the Access to Quality Education Program and Scope Global International, we are working together with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
This year, on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, here in Fiji, we have a lot to rejoice and I encourage all to fully involve themselves in the observance.