VALUING PEOPLE AND FOSTERING DIGNITY AND RESPECT “EDUCATION INCLUSION CHALLENGES FOR STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS IN IRELAND”

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Education Inclusion in Ireland 3

VALUINGPEOPLE AND FOSTERING DIGNITY AND RESPECT: “EDUCATIONINCLUSIONCHALLENGES FOR STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS IN IRELAND”

ValuingPeople and Fostering Dignity and Respect: “EducationInclusionChallenges for Students with Special Needs in Ireland”

Allover the world, people with disability are often discriminated by theother members of society. This paper notes that there is alwaysincreased pressure on disabled to behave normally as if they wereable and or of full health. Among the many measures of interventionsto better the lives of disabled people is the offer of propereducation to them it is well understood that education systems servethe purpose of equipping people with skill and knowledge that enablethem to contribute towards the development of self and society. Whatis more is that education stands to make the disabled to achieve asense of meaning and relevance in life, over and above changing theperceptions of stereotypes and prejudice by others about them. Thiswritten report focuses on inclusion of persons with disability in themainstream education system of Ireland, of course with immenseconsideration for their special needs. It identifies and discusses asituation of ethical dilemma wherein the government of Ireland seemsincompetent in facilitating adequate resource allocation for studentswith special needs. The resultant effect is that parents, teachersand special needs assistants are forced to focus more on attainingresources to support or establish welfare of the children withinschool environment. This paper discussed the subject matter basing onthe range of scenario of incompetent actions of the government. Imust confess that I selected this topic for this paper as a result ofthe experience I acquired as I worked as a special needs assistant ina school in Ireland. I managed to gain firsthand experience of howthe disabled students were left to cope with undesirable situations.What is more is that I also found out that the actions by thegovernment only focused on high intensity cases of disability, otherstudents with special needs that were deemed as being not so intensewere often disregarded by resource allocation programs. Overall, thisdiscussion focuses on reviewing aspects of inclusion in an effort toidentify existing gaps for purposes of improvement and or correction.

Overview

Theterm ‘disabled’ raises different reactions by people of differentparts of the world. All the same, it often is seen as a weighty term,while at the same time implying a sense of negativity anddiscrimination to persons with physical or mental disabilities. Overthe years, the term has also been associated with rising of problemsin various literature as there is no accepted definition of ‘thedisabled,` how to categorize them, and for which reasons. Theconfusion is more evident among students as they strive to identifywith the different groups of the ‘disabled’ in their midst.Jacklin et al. (2007: 6) however points out that the term ‘disabledstudent’ helped garner the attention of policy makers whichresulted in positive changes in the education sector allowing equalopportunities to all. Healey et al. (2006) also argue that treatingdisabled learners separately is unpleasant. This is because allstudents fall along a scale of learner disparity and have the sameconfrontations and complexities of learning. Disability or impairmentcould just be a single factor resulting in the identity of a studentbut not the superseding factor.

Onthe other hand the idea of diversity springs up to counter theproblems raised by use of the term ‘disability’ to describesituations of people with special needs. In the education sector, theterm encompasses all the differences between learners that create theneed for them to be included fairly in the education system. Learnersstriking out as different are often under represented and notconsidered in making education policies. As outlined by Jones (2008),the term ‘diversity’ covers all those learners facing challengesin the learning and teaching environment and reduces confusioncompared to the word ‘disability’. The term also preventsindividual in losing their identities’ in the mix up.

Ashinted before, people with disability can still find relevance andimportance in life. In as far as education for the disabled isconcerned, it is important to elaborate the meaning of the term“Inclusion”. It is, however, important to note that the termdraws different definitions depending on the political, social orreligion orientation. In a social context more particularly theeducation field, it refers to the approach put in teaching and ortraining students with special needs within the context ofcommonplace education systems. Inclusion strives to ensure that boththe disabled learners and non-disabled learners have equalopportunities in acquiring education. A point of interest is that thesubject matter is closely associated with considerations of socialjustice- the practice of equality and solidarity principles among thevarious classifications of people in the society. It makes certainthat human rights and dignity are understood, recognized and valuedas maintained by pedagogy.

Onecannot decline to note that Inclusion and social justice work toachieve a balance between the disabled and non-disabled in theeducation sector. Learning is an important aspect of life andtherefore availing equal and fair opportunities to every individualremains a highly significant matter for societies. Inclusion in thelearning process then ensures that every member of the society ispresented with an approach that is fair enough to facilitate his orher learning process. Social justice ensures that equitable and equallearning opportunities reach all members of the society regardless oftheir classification in society. This therefore a regular teacher whois sometimes helped by an occupational therapist to facilitatelearning allows learners with disability.

Reviewof the Situation of Special Needs from the perspective of Inclusionin the Education SectorinIreland

Accordingto school sectors, and as mentioned before, inclusion refers to themeasures put in place to enable learners with ‘special educationalneeds’ (Francis, and Archer, 2005) be assimilated into ordinaryteaching and learning environments. Inclusion advocates for theright to engage freely in school activities and the duty of a schoolto accept the child. The underlying perception is against use ofspecial classrooms or schools that separate children withdisabilities from those without. The idea of inclusion, put into the1981 Education Reform Act of the UK (affecting Northern Ireland),necessitated for the schools to come up with strategies that wouldhelp complement their average provision with advanced heights ofsupport to students needing it the most. The act opened up a broaderinterpretation of the word inclusion to teachers and researchersother than that which only meant concern for learners with specialneeds. It also facilitated the systematic interventions or supportmechanisms to be more effective than was the case before.

Asa special needs assistant in a school, I placed much concern topromoting and maintaining a sense of inclusion for students withspecial needs in the community’s education system. From thebeginning of my work, I was adamant that such an endeavor ofinclusion would enable the organization and general members of thecommunity to achieve or maintain social justice. Having socialjustice in place then ensures that rather than viewing the studentswith special needs from a single characteristic of disability, theyare observed as ambitious young people with an aim of making positivecontributions towards the development of the community. I alsobelieved that the inclusive pedagogy helped to ensure that the wideranges of differences, skills and talents are identified and thattheir potential and effects on learning are explored and exercised.During my time at the school, I came to understand that a good numberof educators did not comprehend or acknowledge some basic facts ofEducation inclusion. For instance, they failed to note that theinitiative is not supposed to make learners feel that they are beingisolated or addressed concerning their physical and mental weaknessesas would be the case in a health center. Instead, inclusion should betailored to mindfulness and support for their strengths, rights andspecial needs. As earlier described, inclusion refers to involvementof all classes of the society in the societies’ activities. Owingto this understanding, I was able to learn that the school systemsonly regarded the aspect of inclusion as involving extension of basiceducation or mere classes to students with special needs inisolation so rarely was it seen as a platform of social justice.

Regardsfor social justice ought to ensure that the parameters of theactivities of a society are equal for all individuals. Together whenimplemented in the education system the subject should facilitateequal and fair learning opportunities to every individual, regardlessof their physical or mental status. This ensures that the learningenvironment and teaching methodologies require improvements to makethem suitable and accessible to everyone. The differences amongstudents should be taken into account and valued within the typicalcurriculum, assessment and pedagogy. Both social justice andinclusion help achieve an education system and environment easilyaccessible by all people without having to adapt or to create specialeducation systems and environments.

Imust confess that the government and school system of Ireland have sofar initiated some support mechanisms for students with specialneeds. Even so, and as I observed during my time as a school specialneeds assistant, a lot of focus has been placed on aspects ofnormalization as opposed to inclusion. The support mechanisms evenmore create aspects of segregation among students since the ones withspecial needs are often separated from the rest. By working at theschool, I learnt that separation has much more adverse effects onpersons with special needs since they make them dis-enabled withinthe context of mainstream society. The resultant effect is that thereis an abridged aspect of equity among learners. It is important toremember that provision of equal opportunities make learners withspecial needs to have positive image of themselves since thechallenges of being restricted to some areas have been curbed. Thisreduces stigmatization of the diverse learners as they are not viewedin terms of their distinct characteristics but are instead given anequal with the opportunity as the normal learners. It also boosts theself-esteem of the learners with special needs and breaks downbarriers of friendship between them and the rest of the students.What is more is that the students with special needs are able toovercome self-pity as they can easily engage in learning activitiesundertaken by the rest.

Thelegal framework of Ireland, through The National Council for SpecialEducation (NCSE), provides that students with disabilities can befacilitated in accessing mainstream educational opportunities on theplatform of different support systems. One system is that which isestablished and maintained by teachers or educators and or specialneeds assistants wherein the students are integrated in commonplaceclass settings. The other system is where students with special needsare placed in special classes that are established within mainstreamschools. Then, there is the case where the students attend specialschools, built particularly for disabled people, and where othernon-disabled students are not enrolled (Rose, Shevlin, Winter, &ampO’Raw, 2010).

Basedon the guidelines of the NCSE, teachers and special needs assistantsare required to establish and maintain safe learning environments,which enable learners to express their identities, beliefs and ideasfreely without ridicule or criticism. Once an environment ofreciprocated trust and respect is achieved, empathy and openmindedness can be developed by all the students. As I worked as aspecial needs assistant, I realized that safe environments alsoensure that those with special needs can easily move around andengage in the school activities with ease and without being at anyrisk. Nonetheless, there remains an apparent need to create clearlyoutset rules and regulations of what the students are expected to do.This control and monitoring helps develop confidence in the learners’identities. Their behaviors’ are also put in check to ensure thatthey are molded as up right and law abiding citizens that obey thelaw. Lacking rules and regulations then means that any behavior bythe learners is acceptable regardless of whether it is wrong or rightwhen judged by the social norms. It also creates a chaoticenvironment, as there is no control of what is to be done in thatparticular school context.

Thegovernment’s National Disability Authority focuses on makingprovisions for ensuring that students with special needs receiveappropriate education. An important initiative in this regard is theestablishment of the 2004 “Education for Persons with SpecialEducational Needs” (EPSEN) Act, which facilitates allocation orresources, required in inclusive education mechanisms. The EPSEN Actis particularly clear in its policies about the requirements formainstream schools to conform to inclusion. It indicates that schoolshave a duty of identifying students or potential students that havespecial education needs by conducting periodic assessments, inpartnership with other members of the community or parents, and otherrelevant professionals. The Act even allows for schools to apply forfunding from the government to facilitate such processes. What ismore is that parents are allowed and encouraged to report cases ofdissatisfaction or concern about educational mechanisms for studentswith special needs. Such is done to preset Boards of Appeal thatgovern school operations. On a periodic basis, the NationalDisability Authority reviews and assesses the impact of the EPSEN Acton communities and schools in Ireland. As I worked as a special needsassistant, I noticed that the school was privileged to receivefunding and support from the General Allocation System provided forby the Act. Even so, the school required some physical supportsystems for the students with special needs. Indeed, there wererelatively high incidences of disabilities within the schoolenvironment. In actuality, a number of parents raised some concernsof wanting to move their children to other schools that are betterpositioned to provide support systems to cater for the needs ofstudents with physical disabilities.

Benefitsof Inclusion as witnessed in my work experience

Frommy experience of working at the school, I managed to notice thatincluding students with special needs in learning environments of theother students enabled them to enjoy and express freedom of choiceand expression. This establishes an application concept that has adirect link to respect and dignity. A significant point that is worthmentioning is that people with special needs have been on thereceiving end of undesirable perceptions by other members of thepublic for a long time. They have always been unable to exercisecommonplace rights that other people of full health enjoyed. Inaddition, inclusion of students with special needs to normalclassrooms, as opposed to keeping them segregated, also facilitatedthe enhancement of their social skills. Learning in the sameenvironment with those without special needs pushes them to tap theirfull potential, to devise mechanism of makingupfor their limitations. The learners’ social patterns ofinteractions were enhanced on all perspective, association withothers of special needs, the other students, special needs assistantslike myself and even teachers. Nevertheless, one cannot decline tonote that adoption of students with special needs has not beenachieved on a full scale.

Otherattributes of Inclusion

Apoint to note is that inclusion of students with special needs forpurposes of establishing integrated education was initiated inIreland during the 1970’s (McDonnell, 2003). Even so, instances ofsegregation and or isolation are still apparent in the country. Inthe school wherein I served, the levels of segregation were nothingshort of disturbing. The students could only come together duringtimes of symposiums or other special classes. I must confess that thespecial needs classes only served to promote attributes ofdifferentiation in the school. In looking at the rights of thestudents with special needs, a lot of insight can be drawn fromprovisions of the 1996 European Social Charter. It provides thatpersons with special needs bear “A right to independence, socialintegration and participation in the life of the community”(Lawson, 2005, 276). From this perspective, it is clear for one tosee that mainstream schools bear the responsibility of establishingsocial and physical support systems to facilitate inclusion ofstudents with special needs.

Allthe same, teachers and special needs assistants would often makereports of concern to the senior management about the need forimproving support systems for physically disabled students. Moreoften than not, we would identify assess and evaluate the nature andintensity of different needs required by different students in theschool from a pastoral perspective. Aside from the physical needs,special attention was also given to the academic and psychologicalneeds of the students. This ensures that the teacher and specialneeds assistants were aware of the required actions to take indifferent situations of different students with special needs. Theactions taken in attending to the learners were intrinsicallyfocusing on helping them improve and enjoy their time at school,ensuring they did not feel disregarded or inferior to the otherstudents.

Oncethe teacher and or special needs assistant understood the differentcharacteristics of the students, he or she emphasized on instillingattributes that helped to change any negative beliefs or attitudesheld by the student. Such beliefs may be towards the self or othersand may be an inhibiting factor for the advancement of inclusiveteaching and learning. However, and as I learned, once the negativeattitude got broken down, students developed bright perspectives ofthe inclusive teaching, and learning processes, effectiveness wassomewhat guaranteed. Nevertheless, I also noted that understandingthe differences among the diverse learners should not be used as atool of determining how to view them but should instead be used tobuild the learners’ weaknesses and to build on their strengths.

Fromthe above information, it is clear that education system policiesinvolving students with special needs have to be constantly evaluatedto make certain that the welfare of the students is guaranteed byinclusion programs. In Ireland for instance, teachers and specialneeds assistants are charged with responsibility and power of curbingfactors that hinder special needs students’ participation incommonplace school activities. It is however important for thegovernment to monitor and follow-up on how this responsibilities andpowers are exercised, ensuring that the teachers and special needsprofessionals do not compromise or overlook requirements of theirjobs. From a whole new perspective, it would be better if thestudents would be more involved in making of the mentioned policiesto ensure that the curriculum and assessment methods put in place areof relevance to them. This would make them to feel a sense ofbelonging and commitment to the entire process of inclusion, theywould therefore not view it an endeavor of imposing regulations onthem. Indeed, and owing to the experience of my work as a specialneeds assistant, I observed that some special needs students were notas motivated with regards to mechanisms of active participation inactivities of the mainstream school.

Furthermore,the school administration was not very concerned (as one wouldexpect) in making sure that all member of staff gain theunderstanding and obligation to promote the practice of inclusion andsupport for students with special needs. This raises the questionabout need for proper training, and motivation for staff members toview the subject matter of inclusion as a matter of collectiveresponsibility within the school setting. Such initiative wouldguarantee effectiveness and efficiency of the inclusion programs froma general perspective. Other than training the teachers and specialneeds personnel, it is also important to have adequate training forother members of staff in the institution like drivers, cooks andsecurity personnel. In my opinion the mainstream schools in Irelandought to place much emphasis on collection and analysis of bothquantitative and qualitative data relating to inclusive learning. Theunderlying goals should involve achieving desirable prospects forstrengthening the teaching strategies, creating relevant policies andhaving improved learning environments for special needs students. Itis important to note that different institutions will interpret andapply these concepts differently. This is because institutions varyin diversity and intensity of students with special needs thus makingit impossible to have similar implications or applications of theinclusive learning program in the many different schools in Ireland.

Thementioned assessments to be conducted by schools would serve to aidadministrators and educators in determining if the environment in amainstream school is suitable for facilitating inclusion of somestudents with special needs. It is a matter of common understandingthat some special needs would require highly specialized care, whichmay not be available in the mainstream schools. In fact, provision ofsome specialized care to some students with exceptional needs wouldonly imply that they are even more marginalized in the schoolenvironment (Jones, 2008). In addition the general nature of theenvironment in a mainstream school might not be able to facilitatemovement for students with extreme physical disabilities inclusionin this case would definitely not serve the best interest of thestudent. The National Disability Authority also indicates thatassessment mechanisms might have adverse impacts on the students withspecial needs. This is based on the ideology that the process ofassessment per se, implies that the students have some limitations inthe school environment, even though they might not have considerablecases of educational limitation as recognized by the NationalDisability Authority.

AsI worked as a special needs assistant, I managed to recognize thatthe General Allocation System for students with special needs did notoffer rights based platform for supporting the needy citizens of thecountry. In fact, the mechanisms of resource allocation focused onaspects of number of students in the school that had high incidencedisabilities for the most part. In some ways, the system seemsdiscriminatory to students whose disabilities levels werecharacterized as being of low incidence. In light of this, and byevaluation of how resources are allocated based on theiravailability, one might easily be implored to give the opinion thatthe “Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs”(EPSEN) Act has failed to achieve appropriate inclusion patterns inschools in Ireland.

Whatis even more worrying is that challenges in offering resourceallocations have resulted in the shift of responsibility to parentsof students with special needs. One cannot decline to note that thisposes as a huge problem to families struggling with financialdifficulties (Power, 2008). I also noticed that special needsassistants are charged with more responsibilities for offeringsupport than as required by their job descriptions. It is importantto remember that the EPSEN Act clearly outlines that special needsassistants’ responsibilities are limited to provision of care forthe students with special needs. Not only do they face the dilemma ofdevising some resource-based support mechanisms, they are also (asper my experience) required to offer educational support. Thisimplies that the issue of limited resources represents a majorchallenge for the development and wellbeing of students with specialneeds within schools in Ireland.

Conclusion

Thispaper identifies that despite the fact that the Irish legal systemhas put in place some measures for the provision of education tostudents with special needs, more needs to be done in terms ofimproving and enforcing the legislative measures. What is more isthat disability rights within Ireland are yet to be subject todefinitive criterion for determination of the specific rights thatthe government ought to safeguard and to what extents (De Wispelaereand Walsh, 2007). There hence exist a number of flaws in the legalprovisions of the country. A major point of concern is that assuranceof delivering support resources for the students with special needswould pose as undemocratic or unconstitutional. This would be in thesense that it would challenge the government’s duty of deciding andaltering economic and social policies regarding allocation of publicresources.

References

DeWispelaere, J. and Walsh, J., 2007. Disability rights in Ireland:Chronicle of a missed opportunity.&nbspIrishPolitical Studies,&nbsp22(4),pp.517-543.

Healey,M., Bradley, A., Fuller, M. and Hall, T., 2006. Listening tostudents: the experiences of disabled students of learning atuniversity.&nbspTowardsinclusive learning in higher education: Developing curricula fordisabled students,pp.32-43.

Jacklin,A., Robinson, C., O’Meara, L. and Harris, A., 2007. Improving theexperiences of disabled students in higher education.&nbspHigherEducation,&nbsp1.

Jones,R., 2008. New to widening participation? An overview of research,Evidencenet, HEA.

Lawson,A., 2005. The EU rights based approach to disability: Strategies forshaping an inclusive society.&nbspInternationalJournal of Discrimination and the Law,&nbsp6(4),pp.269-287.

McDonnell,P., 2003. Developments in special education in Ireland: Deepstructures and policy making.&nbspInternationalJournal of Inclusive Education,7(3),pp.259-269.

Power,A., 2008. Caring for independent lives: Geographies of caring foryoung adults with intellectual disabilities. SocialScience and Medicine,67, (5), 834 – 843,

Rose,R., Shevlin, M., Winter, E. and O’Raw, P., 2010. Special andinclusive education in the Republic of Ireland: reviewing theliterature from 2000 to 2009.&nbspEuropeanJournal of Special Needs Education,&nbsp25(4),pp.359-373.