This year sees a significant milestone in the history of inclusive education: 25 years ago this month, representatives of 92 governments and 25 international organizations formed the World Conference on Special Needs Education in Salamanca, Spain. The charter they drew up - the Salamanca Statement – had the bold ambition of getting all children with disabilities into classrooms across the world.
Now, a quarter of a century later, how far have we come towards meeting this global commitment?
The issues are complex. We can’t pretend they aren’t. Enabling every child with a disability to get into school, to receive an education that is accessible and tailored to their needs is a huge, global challenge. But after a quarter of a century, it’s staggering how little progress has been made.
Addressing a key barrier to deaf children’s schooling
Deaf Child Worldwide works in East Africa, Southern Asia and Latin America to improve the lives of deaf children and works with partners to make sure deaf children can get a quality education. While the challenges are different in every culture, country and community, there is one barrier that is universal.
Nine out of ten deaf children are born to parents with no knowledge or experience of deafness. As a consequence, parents often have low expectations of their children’s abilities and limited support to help their child thrive and succeed.
Unsupported, the parents of deaf children – much like deaf children themselves - can feel isolated and alone. It therefore follows that reaching out to parents is a crucial step towards giving deaf children the opportunity to succeed in life. All families should have the chance to believe in their child.
The power of parents
Rightly, in debates about disability inclusive education, a lot of time is spent focusing on making education accessible and giving support and training to teachers.
But so often we forget about the transformative power of parents. The parents of deaf children have a vital role to play in their child’s development. They are the key to developing their child’s communication skills from the earliest years of their life, and make sure their children are ready to learn by the time they start school.
One of the most successful interventions we have developed is setting up and supporting local parents groups all across the regions we work in.
In working with parents going through the same situation, something wonderful happens. Parents become empowered, motivated, dogged advocates for change. They become their child’s first teacher. They share their frustrations with someone who’s walked in their shoes. It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child, and that home is a child's first and most important classroom. We couldn’t agree more.
Parents groups in Kenya and Bangladesh
In Kenya, a Deaf Child Worldwide project mobilized hundreds of parents to become champions for their deaf children’s rights. After increasing their own awareness of deaf inclusion and disability rights, they went on to learn about effective lobbying and how to engage with local government on behalf of their children.
In Bangladesh, we launched three parents groups in different districts and helped them access training on raising a deaf child. We helped them learn how to help their friends, their families and the wider community understand deafness and communicate with their children.
Despite the differences between where these projects were set up, in both cases the empowerment of parents and the establishment of parents groups led to significant breakthroughs with local authorities and other bodies on behalf of deaf children. In both areas, these children are now living fuller lives because of the support their parents are now receiving.
The effect on parents
All of our evidence shows that the effect on both the child and their parents is transformational. One mother, Mita Debnath, who lives with her deaf child in Jhenaidah, Bangladesh, described how joining a parents group empowered her to support her son:
“The moment I heard about this program I decided to join. Every time I visit the office, I feel a little more refreshed, a little more relieved and a little more hopeful. . . I believe this will transform the life of my child for the better. It has already transformed my own life.”
One father, Zakirul Islam Babu, succinctly summed up the feeling of empowerment that joining a parents group had for him:
“Our sense of responsibility had always been bottled up. Now we feel liberated enough to take such responsibilities.”
These accounts are testament to the fact that having face-to-face support, a better understanding of how to raise a deaf child and the tools to campaign effectively can transform isolated individuals into a force for change. Parents, once a parents group has been established, become fierce advocates for their children’s education.
There are so many ways in which we need to tackle the crisis in education for children with disabilities. We need a global commitment. We need countries, NGOs and other agencies to come together and prioritize getting disabled children into education.
The establishment of parents groups is just one, albeit powerful, way of tackling this crisis and one which should not be underestimated.
In November 2019, Deaf Child Worldwide will mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child with the publication of a report into the experiences of deaf children in developing countries.
For more information, visit Deaf Child Worldwide