Only through collaboration and networking among people and institutions can we derive developments for all. Networking on inclusive education requires a change of attitude and a willingness to embrace the many opportunities and complex challenges we face. It can encourage participation and initiative, capacity-building, collaborative efforts, shared experiences, and the transfer of specialised knowledge, skills and techniques – within and between communities, schools, special and mainstream education systems, and national and regional initiatives.
My experience with inclusive education networking started more than 20 years ago, when I began work on setting up the first special school for deaf children in The Gambia. Although I had no formal training on deaf education, I identified the educational needs of the deaf children, assessed the aspirations of their parents and reviewed teachers’ choices of communication methods. I set up a senior staff management committee and a Parent-Teacher Association task force. These served as advisory sub-committees, which helped design and implement our first education programme and teaching methods. We reviewed the programme and methods annually and made improvements. A few years later we introduced a modest rehabilitation service into the school programme, to work with deaf people in the community.
I started to investigate the education principles and practices used by special institutions and training centres in ‘developed’ countries and within West Africa. I began to piece together a plan for the development of the school and for the introduction of inclusive education in The Gambia. Next I contacted my colleagues at the special schools for the blind and intellectually impaired to discuss how we could work together to solicit government and NGO support. We collaborated and networked, and began to gather assistance from the media to help us raise public awareness about disability issues and the provision of special needs education and rehabilitation services.
I made contact with colleagues and special institutions further afield – in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria – to share with them valuable work experiences. We learned a lot from each other. I also became involved in the activities of three international educational organisations: The Commonwealth Society for the Deaf; Initiatives for Deaf Education in the Third World; and The Catholic International Foundation for Deaf Education. I attended several international education conferences, seminars and workshops held by these organisations, on a wide range of issues. Teachers from Sierra Leone, Sweden, Norway and England joined their Gambian counterparts to conduct training workshops for the staff at my school.
These diverse learning and networking opportunities led to benefits not only for St John’s School for the Deaf, but for the development of special education and rehabilitation service delivery more generally in The Gambia. For example, the Deaf Association (GADHOH) was formed and registered. A national disability survey was conducted and the results contributed to the preparation of the national policy on ‘special needs education’. Many special needs teachers were offered training in other countries, as a result of the support and co-operation of people we met during our networking. We hope these trainees will form a core of trainers at Gambia College and the University of Gambia. We also managed to get infrastructural development projects, technical aids and educational equipment funded.
Staff from St John’s and other special schools, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, went on to provide basic training for teachers in mainstream schools, in all six regions of the country. We trained them to teach children with special educational needs within their regular classes. We produced and distributed training manuals and handbooks on special needs education for the Gambia College and all the lower basic schools through the Ministry of Education.
These developments resulted from my exposure to new ideas, information sharing and the transfer of knowledge and skills through networking activities. Such networking was rewarding and worthwhile, and those involved developed a professional bond of friendship. Indeed, all this was made possible through the spirit of educational networking to tackle illiteracy and poverty, and facilitate the emancipation and inclusion of disabled people.
I am now retired but feel very grateful for the immense support and co-operation I received both within and outside The Gambia, through those basic inclusive education networking activities.
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