Disabled learners in Karen refugee camps, Thailand

Aye Aye Mortimer

UNHCR guidelines on refugee education emphasise the importance of providing education for disabled children, and UNESCO's Guidelines for Education in Emergencies clearly state the right of all refugee children to education. Moreover, the fact that refugee education is usually not under the control of any government ministry creates an opportunity to develop inclusive practices.

Situation overview

Myanmar (Burma) has many ethnic groups (including Karen). Tension between majority and minority groups has existed for decades. One cause is the fact that Burmese is the official language of education, leaving many learners from minority groups disadvantaged.

Civil war caused many to flee Myanmar. More than 90,000 Karen people are living in refugee camps in neighbouring Thailand; 38% of the Karen children are kindergarten age. Camp schools teach 36,000 students. Disabled children sometimes enrol, but poor teacher education and practices lead many to drop out.

Some aspects of the Royal Thai Government's policy have restricted the development of cohesive education programmes for the refugees. Myanmar opposition organisations have provided education for children from ethnic minorities in remote border areas. The Karen Education Department (KED) is one such body trying to bring cohesion to the geographically separated camp schools operated under programmes set up by international NGOs.

Problems and solutions

The educational needs of disabled learners are being considered in some camps through a range of early intervention and school inclusion programmes, and programmes specifically for deaf and blind people. A US-based NGO, Consortium-Thailand, has helped to develop Karen Sign Language, using video. Karen Braille teaching programmes also exist. However, at present not all camps have access to such programmes.

Some teachers in the camp schools have received 'special needs' training. They teach a range of disabled learners, and prepare individual education plans. There has been some training of mainstream teachers on multi-cultural issues, and concepts of inclusion. Training is very important if disabled children are to be included in schools and/or provided with out-of-school support. An illustrated teacher training module on inclusion has been written in the Karen language, suitable for teachers who may have little education themselves. However, teacher training is fragmented; some organisations do in-service training, while others do pre-service training.

Awareness raising among parents and community members about the needs of disabled children has taken place. NGO representatives from different sectors have met to identify roles and responsibilities in assisting disabled children. WEAVE, a local organisation, works with parent groups on child development and early identification of impairment, but lacks funding to expand its work to all camps.

A key problem is the lack of clear policy guiding NGO interventions on education for disabled learners. The KED policy focuses more on higher education and scholarships, rather than promoting basic education opportunities for the most vulnerable. Another barrier is the lack of reliable information and statistics which could back up planning and funding processes.

Moving forward

Following interviews and questionnaires with NGOs, teachers and disabled adults and children in the camps, the following recommendations can be made:

This article was compiled from a paper by Aye Aye Mortimer. Aye Aye is from Myanmar, and is ethnically Karen. She has lived in the UK since 2001. Contact her via EENET. See also the website of the Karen Education Partnership www.karened.co.uk.



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