Teachers play a critical role in moving inclusive education forward. However the biggest question I always have is: “Are they prepared to accommodate children with disabilities in their standard classrooms?” Every year, I make a point to do something to boost inclusive education in my own community, in my own country of the Philippines. And I found that the inclusion caravan was a perfect opportunity to do exactly that.
The inclusion caravan, a volunteer-based initiative, aims to increase the capacities of student teachers (in Teacher Education Institutions) to accommodate children with disabilities in regular classrooms. It is based on the fact that regardless of their specializations, student teachers should have the opportunity to learn about inclusive education, even before they start going into the field of teaching. This perspective is strongly rooted in the mandate of my country’s Department of Education that stipulates that no child should be denied access to education.
In 2011, I started the inclusion caravan in Negros Oriental, Philippines. Since then, the initiative has trained over 1,000 student teachers from nine Teacher Education Institutions in the province. The caravan project only started receiving funding in 2014 when it won a $10,000 grant from the US Government under the MY IDEA project. This year, the inclusion caravan had a little ‘twist’ in terms of its target participants. I felt a big need to shift the initiative’s focus towards everyday, non-specialized teachers. This rang especially true when my sister, who is herself a teacher, expressed that “the level of awareness among teachers about inclusive education is very low… most of us do not know how to accommodate children with disabilities in our classrooms, and are very skeptical of the idea.”
This change prompted me to run the inclusion caravan in the first congressional district of the province of Negros Occidental where my hometown, Calatrava, is located. In a span of six weeks, a total of 520 teachers from 26 elementary and secondary schools participated the project. They first learned to understand the plight of children with disabilities in society by examining concepts such as the models of disabilities, tensions between Person First Language (PFL) and Identity First Language (IFL) in terms of addressing those with disabilities, and the general and specific types of disabilities. Furthermore, the teachers had the opportunity to critically explore the concept of inclusive education by identifying its elements – definitions, legal bases, opportunities, and challenges especially in the context of the Philippines. Finally, the teachers proposed some practical strategies on how to implement inclusive education in their respective classrooms. Real life stories of teachers practicing inclusion were used to give more meaning to the discussion.
Running the caravan for six weeks allowed me to reflect on a number of things. First, if the Department of Education wants to make inclusive education prosper, they should provide more training opportunities for regular schoolteachers. Although a number of them were very skeptical of the idea of including children with disabilities in their classrooms, the inclusion caravan was a good example of how a practical training program can help shift teachers’ perspectives towards inclusive education. Second, there are teachers who are already accommodating children with disabilities in their classrooms but most of them feel ‘unsupported’ in the process. In fact, one of them expressed the following: “it is hard to continue accommodating children with disabilities especially if you feel you are not given the support you need. Parental involvement and the will of school leadership are non-existent.” In this context, I feel a big need to make teachers realize that in moving inclusive education forward, they are right in needing the support of allies. Teachers should not feel alone in this process. Thirdly, it was interesting to note that some teachers, especially those who have been accommodating children with disabilities, shared some helpful strategies with their fellow teachers. The caravan became a meaningful space for them to have conversations with one another, specifically on how to work with children with disabilities. This made me reflect of the need to create a space for teachers to learn practical inclusive education strategies from one another. Finally, running the caravan made me realize how important it is to empower teachers to be both practitioners and advocates of inclusive education. In this setting, there definitely is a real need to create a movement that will amplify the ‘voices’ for inclusive education. Advocacy beyond the four walls of the classrooms is a necessity. And I believe that teachers, with their rich experience working with children with disabilities, can grow inclusive education advocacy on the ground.
Now that the 2016 edition of the inclusion caravan has to come to an end, I can only hope that even for a brief time, the initiative has helped to promote inclusive education in my hometown, where negative attitudes towards disability still prevail. And I can only hope that the caravan has touched the hearts of these teachers, imparting important principles such as knowing that every child with a disability deserves to learn alongside his or her peers in a classroom, while being fully supported and respected by the teaching community.