At a National Consultation on Special Education in 1990, representatives of the Ministry of Education shared a vision of a school system where “students with special needs have the right to full opportunity for self-development in a wholesome educational environment and equal education treatment in the most productive and least restrictive environment.”
That declaration held the promise of a more inclusive public school system that fully meets the requirements of special needs students. Instead, more than three decades after the event at which that progressive philosophy was espoused, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed significant shortfalls in efforts to develop a truly inclusive education system. With the shift to online learning, students with disabilities have been left at a major disadvantage.
In testimony before a Joint Select Committee on Social Services and Public Administration earlier this week, Dr Radica Mahase, founder of Autism TT, outlined the difficulties faced by special needs studies because they are “unable to sit for long hours and they start experiencing headaches and eye problems.”
Dr Mahase said there have been no additional support measures from the Ministry of Education to help with the transition to online learning, compounded by a lack of teacher’s aides or resources for teachers. Also, the standardised curriculum and evaluation methods do not allow for differential learning styles and abilities.
Inclusive education specialist Leticia Rodriguez-Cupid told the JSC the pandemic had been traumatic to many students, while principal of the Princess Elizabeth Special School, Gerard Frederick, revealed that three students from the school were denied the opportunity to sit the Secondary Entrance Assessment exam.
These revelations stand in direct contradiction to the intent enunciated by the Ministry’s Student Support Services Division (SSSD) as far back as 2007, for an inclusive system of education providing seamless support from early childhood to post-secondary education.
This is the unit responsible for delivering an array of support services to all students, including those with special educational needs. However, it currently operates at 20 per cent staffing with only 23 trained professionals on staff—insufficient to adequately meet the needs of the 3,365 students referred there for support services.
Only some of these students are currently accessing the SSSD’s services, the JSC was told.
This is an untenable situation on top of all the other difficulties the Education Ministry continues to encounter in facilitating education for the thousands of students currently unable to attend physical classes.
Schools have been closed for one year and for that length of time, special needs students, along with thousands of others, have been deprived of their right to an education, not only because of the size of the country’s digital divide but due to the failure to develop a system that caters to diverse learning abilities.
At this stage in our national development, there should have been a well-developed template for how to provide all students the opportunity to access and succeed in the national curriculum. In its absence, there is the risk of too many students being left behind.