Any analysis of inclusive and special education in Asia, past and present, must account for the immense variation in what constitutes Asia and recognize that finding patterns in the development of inclusive and special education across this vast continent is difficult. The variations relate to geographic topography, historical experiences, and cultural values, as well as to contemporary socio-economic and political conditions. For example, although both Oman and Timor Leste struggle with issues of accessibility and providing services in remote areas, Timor Leste’s mountainous terrain presents very different challenges from Oman’s desert conditions. Similarly, the different cultural influences of, say, Hinduism in Nepal, Islam in Jordan, and Buddhism in Cambodia have significant implications for attitudes towards disability, while differences in economic development between Japan and Bangladesh, for instance, have rendered the former a donor of international aid that sets the inclusive education agenda and the latter a recipient of both aid and agenda. While efforts to identify patterns in inclusive education globally have also attempted to define the nature of development in Asia, these analyses do not always account for the unique intra-continental variations. Overlooking these variations in socio-political and economic contexts becomes problematic when attempting to find solutions towards providing culturally responsive and culturally specific services appropriate to these unique circumstances. Additionally troubling is the more recent development of a geopolitical climate which assumes that inclusive and special education could and should, in fact, be the same, whether in Bangladesh or in Japan. Embodied by international aid agencies, such as the World Bank, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), these expectations have been captured within global policies, such as the 1994 Salamanca Statement on Inclusive Education, the 2008 UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, and more recently, the 2015 Millennium Sustainable Goals, and furthered through UNICEF’s and UNESCO’s curriculum packages and professional development training on inclusive education. There is a nascent body of scholars in some Asian countries that is beginning to identify indigenous alternatives, which, if allowed to thrive, could contribute to the development of an amalgamated structure of services that would be more appropriate to the individual contexts.
Jayanthi Narayan and Nibedita Patnaik
Education is a fundamental right of all children, including those with special educational needs. Efforts to achieve education for all has resulted in the focused attention of governments around the world, thereby improving the quality of education in schools and leading to dignified social status for students previously marginalized and/or denied admission to schools. This worldwide movement following various international conventions and mandates has resulted in local efforts to reach rural remote areas, with education provided by the government in most countries. Though there has been significant progress in reaching children, it has not been uniform. There are still many barriers for children in rural and tribal areas or in remote parts of the country that prevent them from receiving equitable education. The essence of inclusive education is to build the capacity to reach out to all children, thereby promoting equity. In the 1990s, special needs education was a focus, and integrating it into the overall educational system led to reforms in mainstream schools which resulted in inclusive education that addressed the diverse learning needs of children. How successful have we been in these efforts particularly in the remote and rural areas? There are various models and practices for special and inclusive education in rural and remote areas, but reaching children with special educational needs in such areas is still a challenge. Though there are schools in these areas, not all are sufficiently equipped to address the education of children with special needs. Furthermore, teachers working in rural areas in many countries are not adequately trained to teach those with special needs, nor are there the technological support systems that we find available in urban areas. Yet, interestingly, in some rural/tribal communities, the teachers are naturally at ease with children with diverse needs. The schools in such areas tend to have heterogeneous classes with one teacher providing instruction to combined groups at different grade levels. Evidence shows that rural teachers are less resistant to including children with special needs compared to urban teachers. Because of their homogeneous lifestyle, community supports in rural areas offer another supportive factor toward smooth inclusion. Though primary education is ensured in most rural and remote areas, children have to travel long distances to semi-urban/urban areas for secondary and higher education; such travel is further complicated when the child has a disability. In many rural areas, children with special needs tend to learn the traditional job skills naturally associated with that area, though such skills are not always blended into the school curriculum. Preparing teachers to provide education in rural areas with the latest technological developments and a focus on vocation is bound to make that education more meaningful and naturally inclusive.