Can Inclusive Education continue to be 'Special' for differently-abled
THE education of children who have disability, (as with children who
have other special educational needs) has conventionally been called
The term was coined in the 18th century when it was believed that
these children required "special" institutions and personnel to meet
their educational needs. The UNESCO Salamanca Statement of 1994 changed
those ideas and urges governments to "adopt as a matter of law or policy
the principle of inclusive education." It further calls for states to
recognize that "every child has unique characteristics, interests,
abilities and learning needs," and that they "must have access to
Whilst many countries in keeping with the UNESCO Salamanca Statement
have adopted a policy of inclusive education for children who have
disability, the organizational framework within which such children
receive their education still continues to be called "Special
Education". The situation in Sri Lanka is an example.
It illustrates clearly the resulting confusion caused by continuing
to use the term "Special Education" whilst attempting to propagate
inclusive policies and strategies. The situation may be similar in other
countries of our region.
Sri Lanka has three ways by which children who have disability can
have "Special Education" - mainstream classrooms and special education
units (both provided by Government) and special schools run by the
private sector and NGOs. At present over 100,000 children who have
disability are in mainstream classrooms and around 10,000 are in special
education units. In the year 2000 there were 24 special schools
registered with the Ministry of Education, and they had between them a
total of 2583 children.
Inclusive education for children who have disability was the implicit
policy of the Ministry of Education even before 1994, but it is still
administered by a "Special Education Department" and by "Special
Recent introduction of wide-ranging reforms in Sri Lanka's Primary
School System has provided a valuable framework for inclusion.
Competency-based curricula and continuous assessment are more suitable
to most such children than the conventional end-of-semester and
end-of-year examinations. Changes in classroom teaching to be learner-centred
and group and activity-based, development of practical and technical
skills, co-curricular activities, counselling and career guidance,
school-based management and new strategies for teacher education, all
benefit children who have disability in inclusive education.
Further, assessments are made with parental involvement, of a child
entering primary school by both a medical officer and the class-teacher.
These are maintained on a continuous basis and are cumulative for each
child until, at present, they complete primary school. The assessment
enables the teacher to practice child-centred teaching methods that
address each child's particular problems. It requires however,
effective, appropriate and relevant preliminary and continuous training
of all teachers. Needless to say all these do need further development.
Sri Lanka needs to give far more attention than it does now to improve
the quality of education available to children who have disability.
There are many children who have disability who have not ever been to
school. For those who have been enrolled, attrition rates are
Our education system however has many strategies in place to promote
the inclusion of children who have disability. And yet, there is a
perception among teachers, others in the education system and some
members of the general public that "children who have disability do not
belong in the mainstream classroom". They believe that such children
belong in "Special Education" units and special schools.
Sri Lanka's National Policy on Disability approved in 2003 recognizes
that children and parents should have the freedom to choose either the
mainstream or the segregated private system, and takes into account the
need to support also special schools. What is often forgotten however is
that even within each of these special schools, primary school reforms
should be put into place so that the concepts of inclusion will be
practised to benefit each child who has disability, recognizing that
"every child has unique characteristics, interests, abilities and
Inclusive education is not a term that can be used to categorize
schools. Inclusive Education is about strategies which call for every
school to focus on the needs of the children who come to them. These
strategies apply equally to mainstream and to segregated schools. There
may be special schools but there can be no Special Education.
Sri Lanka's National Policy on Disability states that;-
"The use of the words "Special Education" has marginalized children
who have disability further, and tended to separate and segregate them.
In keeping with the philosophy of "one school system for all" (to which
Sri Lanka is committed), these words will be changed to "Inclusive
Education "which conveys the concepts of inclusion and of equity".
The term "Special Education" is out of date - it serves to perpetuate
old ideas about differences in educational opportunities available to
those children who have disability and those who do not. It is
deprecatory, discriminatory and a violation of children's rights. It is
time for this term to be put out of use.
(The writer has worked as a national and international adviser in
disability for the past 26 years. She chaired the committee that drafted
Sri Lanka's National Policy on Disability, is a Senior Consultant to the
Department of Special Needs Education of the Faculty of Education of The
Open University of Sri Lanka, and authored the Situation Analysis paper
on "Education of Children who have Disability" (2003) for the National