Including Deafblind Children
Sumitra Mishra and Ben Simms
For deafblind children and their families, the Salamanca Statement was a breakthrough. It was the first major international declaration to make reference to the specific needs of deafblind children.1 However, in the experience of Sense International and its partners, Salamanca has had little or no positive effect on the numbers of deafblind children2 accessing formal educational opportunities, and there is little understanding of how a deafblind child can be supported within either mainstream or specialist settings.3 This article highlights the problems facing deafblind children with examples of individual children with whom Sense International is working in India. It raises questions about our understanding of the term ‘inclusion’ and how this is being interpreted ‘on the ground’ by national governments and child rights activists.
Ten years after Salamanca, the overwhelming majority of deafblind children remain excluded from education settings. Those who are in school struggle in the face of large children-teacher ratios, and teaching approaches which fail to take account of the specific communication needs of deafblind children – drop-out rates remain high.
Deafblindness is not recognised as a distinct disability; national education plans for achieving Education for All do not make reference to deafblindness; no statistics exist to underpin the planning of education provision; there is a lack of expertise in the classroom; and little consultation takes place directly with deafblind children and their families themselves.
Vibuti is an eight-year-old deafblind child contacted by the Blind People’s Association, Ahmedebad. Despite her abilities, no mainstream school could be persuaded to accept her. In the last few months Vibuti was rejected from the special school she has been attending. In both cases the schools felt they lacked resources and expertise.
These issues are addressed in Salamanca, but little practical effort is being made at a national level to implement its vision of specialist educational strategies for deafblind children. Rather, Salamanca has been used as a rationale by governments to reduce both the size of, and the funding available to, the special education sector. Deafblind children, the overwhelming majority of whom require specialist educational support, have fallen on the ‘unfashionable’ side of the debate around inclusion. The resulting neglect of specialist educational provision means that deafblind children’s exclusion is as profound now as it was in 1994.
Rumi, a seven-year-old girl from a village in Orissa, joined 35 other classmates in her village school in 2003. She sits at the back, isolated, unable to participate in the activities. Her teacher has resisted making allowances for her impairment. “My hands are full”, he told Sense International. “I have to pay attention to the whole class not to individuals.”
Typical of our experience, and that of our partners, was the attitude of Brazilian government and World Bank officials at a conference held last year in Rio de Janeiro: long discussions around the ‘mainstreaming’ of children with learning disabilities and those with physical impairments, on the one hand; silence and incomprehension in the face of questions from parents of deafblind children, on the other.
In this situation, what choices face an educator, or an advocate working on behalf of the deafblind child? Is it not better to keep a child at home, providing specialist individual support through a parent or a field worker?
Javed attends a residential school for blind boys in Delhi. He has moved up through the school never once having taken an exam. “He is too weak in his studies”, a teacher explained. Recently the school discovered he has a hearing impairment. The response of the school was a request to Javed’s family to remove him to a school for learning disabled children. His future is unresolved.
Sense International believes that deafblind children have a right to be part of the education system and that they should have the appropriate support to access this. We embrace a concept of education which takes account of the needs of the individual child, and which delivers appropriate physical, learning and social environments in which children can learn. Because of the unique and complex needs of deafblind children, we recognise that that their education might more suitably be provided in specialist education settings or special schools. However, we also recognise that at times with appropriate specialist support deafblind children can also flourish in mainstream settings.
To this end, Sense International is involved in a range of activities:
- In Romania, we have worked closely with the Ministry of Education: for the first time in that country’s history, deafblind children have been accessing classrooms within state-funded special schools; an accredited in-service teacher training course has been developed; a teachers’ network channels peer support, and a range of publications has been produced to support teachers in the development of their expertise.
- In India, we have pioneered community-based rehabilitation approaches, which ensure early identification of children, support to families, and attitudinal changes amongst the wider community. At its best, these programmes have led to children being included within village schools, supported by trained field workers.
- In Bolivia, we have worked to keep children with Usher syndrome4 within the special education system, by providing information and training to teachers reluctant to adapt their approaches.
Sense International derives some pride from this work. However, with each step we take, we become more conscious of how much further we have to go.
It is time for us to forge a wider partnership with those working to implement the vision of Salamanca. However, for this to happen, we need to project a more balanced interpretation of its goals. For too long, governments and international agencies have been allowed to ignore the challenge deafblind children present educationalists and planners. Now is the time for change.
We would like to establish a dialogue with EENET readers which will bring fresh momentum to the work we are doing with deafblind children and their families across the developing world. Please contact us!
Sumitra Mishra is Programmes Manager in Sense International’s India office and can be contacted at:
2nd Floor – Left
Opp LML Workshop
Tel +91 11 25618430
Ben Simms is Programme Manager and is based in Sense International’s London office:
11-13 Clifton Terrace
Tel: +44 207 567 3377
1 “Educational policies (can) take account of individual differences and situations₀ (since) Owing to the particular communication needs of deaf and deaf/blind persons, their education may be more suitably provided in special schools or special classes and units in mainstream schools” (Article 21)
2 The UK Government adopted a formal definition of deafblindness only as recently as 1989: “Persons are regarded as deafblind if their combined sight and hearing impairment cause difficulties with communication, access to information and mobility.” Department of Health (2001) Social Care for Deafblind Children and Adults, UK: HM Government
3 There are no comprehensive statistics relating to the numbers of deafblind people. The most effective identification of deafblind people to date has been carried out by Bradford City Council in the UK, which identified 90 deafblind people per 100,000 (2003).
4 Usher syndrome is a genetic condition that causes deafness or partial hearing from birth and sight loss from teenage years onwards. It affects about five per cent of the deaf population.