I recently had the opportunity to interview Julia McGeown, Handicap International’s technical advisor for inclusive education. Julia helps oversee the organization’s efforts to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools in 25 countries. These programs are close to my heart, not only because I visited Handicap International’s program in Ethiopia in 2013, but also because I also benefitted from being included in public schools in the U.S.
Jessica: How do you define inclusive education?
Julia: Inclusive education means making mainstream education inclusive to all learners, including children with disabilities and other marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities and the economically disadvantaged. Our particular focus is on children with disabilities.
Jessica: How does Handicap International make this possible?
Julia: We take a twin-track approach. First we focus on improving the lives of the individual children by providing them with assistive devices, physical therapy, and other support. Second, we try to make the actual education system inclusive, by making sure that the curriculum is accessible to children with different types of disabilities, that teachers are trained to work with children with disabilities, and that the schools are physically accessible.
One of the most fundamental aspects of our work is changing attitudes. In the places where we work, people often have very negative attitudes about disability. They may believe children with disabilities can’t learn or that it’s not worth the effort to educate them. In each situation, we try to understand what the negative beliefs might be, and how we change them. We want teachers, parents, and communities to learn how they can empower these children rather than discriminate against them.
Jessica: That's wonderful. In your experience, what has worked to change those attitudes?
Julia: Well, we don't just go out and say, "We're HI, we know what’s best, and this is what you're going to have to do." We try to find people with disabilities in the communities who are advocates and can change the opinions of the people around them, especially local leaders. We provide them with training and knowledge so they can spread the message of inclusion. In Ethiopia, for example, I met one of our advocoates who is very outspoken and animated. He performs fun little plays and presentations in the community that really engage people. They see that he is successful and confident, despite having a disability, and this begins to change their mindsets.
We use different communication methods in different countries depending on the local culture and technology available. We’ve used cartoons in Cambodia, radio messages in Sierra Leone, and videos in places where people have access to DVD players, for example.
Jessica: Okay, great. I’m curious, how has Handicap International’s inclusive education program in Ethiopia changed since I was last there?
Julia: We’ve expanded a lot: we’ve gone from working in six pilot schools to having 14 cluster schools that support an additional 35 satellite schools. Our schools are in six regions: Dire Dawa, Harar, Somali, Oromia, Amhara, and Addis Ababa. I visited the programs in November 2015, and the team there is really good, with lots of experience.
Right now the program has a big focus on reading. We are increasing the number of braille books and are also trialling a software program which uses pictures and symbols to help children who have had difficultly learning to read plain text. A couple of the pilot schools also have transition units that help children with intellectual disabilities to learn at a slower pace to learn basic skills, before moving to a mainstream class.
Ethiopia is pushing preschool attendance, so we’re now working with nursery school students. In the class I saw, I noticed a lot more children with disabilities than in the classes with older students. Gradually, you'll get more and more children with disabilities in school.
Jessica: When you were Ethiopia did notice any overall change in the communities’ attitudes as a result of HI’s work?
Julia: Yes. As a part of our program we have a disability resource center in Dire Dawa that is geared for adults with disabilities. More and more people with disabilities are coming to the center for classes and other services. I spoke to people at the center and they said they’ve seen a change in the community’s attitude towards them since our program started. They said that many people feel they are facing less stigma and fewer people are afraid to come out into the community.
Jessica: That's so awesome to hear because when my husband Patrick and I were there we heard many stories of children who were hidden away because of the stigma. It’s amazing that your programs are bringing people out of hiding. I am deeply grateful for the work that you and your team are carrying out.