With my IKEA family from India, the Netherlands and Australia, along with Teddy, our special guest, we travelled across Metro Manila to witness Save the Children’s inclusive education project funded through IKEA’s Soft Toys for Education campaign. This project, called KASALI (a Filipino word which means to belong), helps differently abled children get a quality education. I prefer calling these children differently abled than disabled because I firmly believe that the children I met might have lost out on one strength but have been compensated with immeasurable love, compassion and the ability to accept you the way you are! They hugged and greeted us all like they had known us for yearsJ and, trust me, it feels amazing.
After meeting these special children at the parents’ assembly where they were being assessed on their disabilities, we went to meet inclusive educators, or trained early-childcare and development educators. I knew it would not be as magical as the previous item on the agenda, but being an inquisitive programme person myself, meeting teachers would answer all my ”how” questions. These teachers had undergone a special training by Save the Children on how to mainstream children into regular classes.
Nervous faces sitting in a semicircle, brightly dressed, greeted us and after a brief round of introduction one teacher stood up to give us a presentation. The presentation was all about thanking the IKEA Foundation for their generous donation and about physical objects like a health kit, a dental kit, etc.—probably because other donor agencies like to focus on things given and bought, but the IKEA Foundation focuses on impact. ”How has this training enabled teachers to include differently abled children?”How have things changed for these special children?” So we decided to probe further. After a few attempts, the teachers started opening up, and we realised that it was the language barrier or the hesitation on seeing so many people from a donor agency and from different countries that was holding them back.
Teachers started giving examples of how they ensured inclusion; “Children with problems in hearing now sit in the front row so that they can hear better and go to the toilet when needed’,” said teacher Harold. Teacher Shayne Pearl had a 12-year-old student with Down’s syndrome and a mental age of five. She did not treat the child as special but had her sit with everyone in class. She encouraged her to do all the activities that other children do with a little extra assistance not noticeable to everyone, which did wonders as the child started picking up and playing with everyone. The parents of the child thanked the teacher for this major development.
“A child with ADHD would stand on table and chairs till I calmly started to include him in all activities with every other child and calmed him down. He was a bright child and easily started grasping things,” says Erlinda.
Mary Grace has a child in her class whose legs had to be amputated. Mary would help the child sit in front of her and help her go around the school. The passion in the teachers started emerging; more and more teachers wanted to cite examples and were extremely honest, which I really appreciated. Normina had not wanted a differently abled child in her class. “Inclusion starts from within,” she said. After the training she felt understanding for the kids, and now she has a child with ADHD who is an integral part of her class.
“We sing, we dance, we play games that children like, and hence they want to come to school even when ill,” says Mary Grace. “We get children with Down’s syndrome, hearing impairments, physical handicaps, autism and ADHD, and parents are not very open in accepting it.” Thanks to these assessment sessions and openness in schools, parents have started sending children to school. Teacher Erlinda even made an extra effort of visiting each house to convince the parents to bring their children to the assessment.
After talking to these teachers, I realised how a compassionate and well trained teacher could change things around for special children, which makes them very special people, too. Not every teacher will be able to deal with differently abled children! It takes a lot of patience and that spark from within dovetailed with good training, of course. It also takes a lot of effort to provide trainings to teachers, to spread awareness and build acceptance in the community, and to ensure sustainability by including the various layers of the government. All this takes a lot of sweat and blood, which makes Save the Children staff working on this project also extremely special! Amidst all these special people, we had a very happy and content teddy – the representative soft toy that enabled us to do such work!