With the passage of time, I am glad to know that at least some people have now begun to realize the importance of inclusive education in Bhutan as a tool for integrating children with disabilities into the mainstream school environment to further their independence and enhance their capacity to live a meaningful life. I have studied in the mainstream school since grade 7 but with no teachers trained to deal with special need children, it was very challenging to be able to cope with sighted friends because we were literarily crippled by limited reading materials in accessible formats and lack of trained teachers. Nevertheless, I and my friends managed to find our way out and could successfully complete our studies. But if the inclusive education policy was already in place, we would have had a different story to share. Today, people have started talking about inclusive education and I am very grateful that they have started taking some interest in the subject. One of the lecturers of Paro College of Education, Mr. Rinchen Dorji is currently doing his PHD degree in Inclusive Education in Australia and a couple of months ago, I have had the opportunity to take part in his research study. Following is the transcript of that interview held in my office. I have named the interviewer as RD.
RD: Thank you very much for taking your time to give me this interview. This interview is going to take around 25 to 30 minutes. In the course of our interview, if you feel uncomfortable answering any of the questions, please do feel free to avoid answering those questions. In no part of the study, your identity will be disclosed and the information gathered from this interview will be used primarily for the academic purpose of this study.
So, with this, I would like to request you to kindly tell me about your current job and the job responsibilities you have.
Me: Thank you very much and I really feel privileged to be part of this study. Well, currently I work here in the Department of Youth and Sports, Ministry of Education as Counsellor. Mostly my responsibilities include planning and conducting youth-related programs. But in addition to the responsibilities related to the programs I mentioned earlier, whenever I get clients, I also provide counselling. That’s what I actually do.
RD: How long have you been in this job?
Me: I think 8 years running. I joined in January 2007 and this was my first posting.
RD: Ok. Do you think your school education has prepared you adequately for this job?
Me: Somehow yes. Because the integration policy, which actually gave us the opportunity to study in regular school prepared me well to interact with non-disabled people in a normal environment. So, I studied from Class 7 to 12 in a regular mainstream school. That actually gave me very good opportunities to learn how to deal with sighted people and non-disabled people.
Me: And when I went to College, I went to a regular college. The College – the University was not specifically for special needs students. So, when I got into this job, I didn’t have any problem in dealing with non-disabled colleagues here. They were very supportive. I feel the education system has prepared me well to carry out my current job responsibilities.
RD: Can you briefly tell me about your school experiences as a student and how you feel about it?
Me: Ah… when I actually wen to school, the current Muenselling Institute in Khaling had classes up to 8. From pre-primary to Class 8, they used to keep us down there only. Then, people used to be integrated only in Grade 9. But in our time, there was a special advice from the Ministry of Education, from the Government that we should actually start the integration system quite early. Because by the time you are in Grade 9, you are already into or you are almost in late teens. So, till Grade 9, you have not interacted or you have not learnt to co-study with sighted people. I think some officials in the Government felt that it might be posing some challenges for visually impaired students to cope with the other sighted classmates. So in my time, the integrated practice started since Class 2 where I started going to a regular school. It was in 1991.
RD: Oh is it?
Me: But it was not a full time integration because the teachers who were teaching us in the regular schools were not special education teachers. They were not trained to teach children with disabilities. So, at least we were taken twice or thrice a week to give us the experience of learning alongside non-disabled children and just to make us feel indifferent.
Me: It went well that year but the next year, when I was in Class 3, they tried to pilot it as a full time integrated system. We then attended the regular school until half yearly but that time for most of the students, their academic performances really went down. Particularly in my case, as a child, I was not so bad in studies but once we started going full-time to regular school, I began to lose interest especially in Mathematics. Because the teachers who taught in the regular school were not trained to teach children like us. They were not actually really able to give us attention especially when they showed their problem solving work on the board. They were not able to describe everything on the board and kept on explaining only what was shown on the board and they did not come to us to explain to us separately. I think probably because of that, I nearly failed in the half-yearly examination.
RD: That must have been a difficult time then.
Me: So, we were not actually able to cope really well with it then. So, again after the half-yearly mid-term exam, the school authorities from Muenselling Institute decided to have us continue our studies down there only. But then, we used to go at least twice a week to the regular school but not full time. Then from Class 7, we started going full time in the High School. Although we continued to face similar problems with some teachers, they were not confident enough to convince us with their teaching but with our own efforts and support of other sighted people, I think we coped very well till Class 12.
RD: Ok. You mentioned about the teachers not being trained and not being confident to teach students with special needs in the regular mainstream school. And you also mentioned about he specific problems you had with Mathematics classroom teaching. How did the teachers in general meet your learning needs as a student who had difficulty with sight when majority of the students were sighted?
Me: Generally, they were nice and whenever they used to ask questions and had some interactive sessions, they used to include us equally. People were asked questions randomly and they use to even include us. So, that way, most of the teachers were really caring and concerned. There were few teachers who even used to call us to their houses during the weekends for extra classes. That was nice but one or two or few teachers may be, I don’t know, for some reasons they were not able to give us personal attention.
Me: But on the whole, the majority of the teachers were concerned and supportive.
RD: How were you personally able to cope with such difficulties studying in a regular school with teachers who were not at all trained and confident to teach students with disabilities?
Me: Yeah, it was really challenging but we had to put more efforts from our side to supplement what has been taught in the class. An one of the greatest challenges was that we did not have textbooks in Braille and we had to write ourselves. And we had to request the teachers of the School for the Blind there to help us transcribe the textbooks into Braille. Most of the Braille textbooks and notes, we had to braille it ourselves and we had to get help from our sighted friends. And one of the advantages of going to a regular school is that you get a lot of sighted friends who are really willing to help you. That way, we did not overuse the same person again and again.
RD: Looks like you had a number of good reliable friends.
Me: That way, our weekends used to be very busy and even during our winter vacations, the visually impaired friends; we used to divide the different subjects amongst ourselves to type the textbooks into braille. So, during the winter vacation we used to take the Braille kit – the typewriter, the braille paper and the copy of the textbook. And at home, we used to ask our siblings or other friends to dictate and at the end of the vacation, we had the textbook for the new class. So, that’s how we managed to cope with the challenges.
RD: It must have been big challenge trying to keep up with the daily learning tasks and at the same time transcribe the textbooks into braille. Was there any kind of support from the school in terms of making such arrangements so that the kind of pressure that student with disabilities had to face through such a workload?
Me: No, from the regular school no but from Muenselling Institute, we used to get a lot of support from the teachers but they were also constrained in number. So, those teachers who were free were able to help us. When I reached in Class 11 and 12, I started a new strategy. I just got a voice recorder from Muenselling Institute and we used to record the day’s lesson. And then every evening during the evening study hour, I used to listen to the recorder, take down the notes and keep the same tape ready for the next lesson. We did struggle a lot but it was worth it.
RD: What about the textbook you had in the college? Did you have again braille them?
Me: Oh yes. Actually when I went for my undergraduate studies to the University – I went to a regular University in Tamil Nadu (India) under government scholarship. There also, they did not have any support or braille facilities or any disability support services. However, there was an organisation working for the Blind, which was about 35 to 40 kilometres away from the University. We used to go there and make personal request to transcribe selected textbooks for us. It used to be very expensive but they used to give us some special discount.
Me: So, we used to print some very important textbooks because we could not afford to transcribe every textbook. Others we mostly depended on the notes and too also like from the tape recording of the classroom teachings. Tape-recording of classroom sessions became very rigorous throughout my college days. The lack of easily accessible study materials and the degree of personal attention from the tutors that we actually require were the biggest challenge. Apart from that, everything else was fine.
RD: Ok. What were some of the most memorable school experiences you had as a student especially here in Bhutan?
Me: One thing is you get to make lot of good friends who really support you. I don’t feel like they see me as somebody less abled. It is good to have lot of friends around. You don’t feel lonely; you don’t feel different. And as I said earlier, there were a good number of caring teachers who really made you feel special. So, I think despite the inadequate textbooks and reading materials, I think I had a very joyful, fruitful academic life.
RD: Any experiences that were less satisfactory and that you wish should have been different?
Me: Ah… the lack of infrastructure generally, I think that was really a concern for me. Because when we were integrated into regular schools, the concerned authorities were not concerned about the safety of the environment that we were actually sent to. I think the physical accessibility is still a problem in all our schools because we don’t have ramps; we don’t have proper footpaths; there are open drains. People mostly take it for granted that people will be able to cope with this but they don’t actually think about the persons with disability in particular. When I was a in a High School, I even fell into a septic tank that was not even fenced and it was right on my way to my classroom.
RD: Oh! That must have been a horrible experience.
Me: And that was the kind of environment that was there and I was new to this school. I was just in Class 7, which was my first year in a regular school. I and my friend who was also visually impaired – two of us actually fell into this septic tank. Fortunately nothing happened to both of us and only from that day, the school started fencing it. But there were so many drains and corridors, which did not have any railings where if you miss it, you would just fall and we had to walk along these corridors to move from one classroom to another. And during our time, another factor that actually added to that difficulty was like we were somehow not trained or we were not actually made to use the White Cane. Our teachers at Muenselling Institute did advice us to use the White Cane but I think they were also not trained on orientation and mobility.
Me: In our time, till I was in Class 12, none of us used to use the White Cane and that was one big factor which was a lapse on our side but on the other hand, the physical environment was also not so safe and not so accessible for such use. I think even in our special schools today, I think the physical accessibility is still an issue. I have been to Changangkha School and I think they had the footpaths and other things added just recently. I think the special children as they go to higher classes, there is no way they can climb the stairs to get to the classes where mostly the higher classes are located on the upper floors of school buildings. Most probably, firstly this is very expensive to address the accessibility issues in school surroundings but still it is important that the school realise the importance of such facilities. I think that is the only thing that has been less satisfactory that I have been through as a student with special needs during my schooling.
RD: Ok. Do you remember any special arrangements that the schools made to specifically address the educational or learning needs of students with special needs to ensure that students with disabilities felt included in school in terms of learning, social and emotional needs?
Me: There wasn’t any specific program as such but whenever the schools had some activities, the school used to give us the option to participate or not. If we wanted to participate, we had the opportunity but we used to participate mostly in cultural shows and programs. That’s actually how many sighted friends knew us through our participation in cultural performances. I remember that during the Annual School Fete Day or Annual Foundation Day and Annual Sports Day, the school used to involve us. I think I participated a couple of times.
RD: Thank you. The Ministry of Education has been taking the initiative to include students with special needs in the regular mainstream school where all children learn together irrespective of their abilities and backgrounds. What is your feeling about this?
Me: Well I think this is a very good concept. For me like academic learning is not only about what is written in the textbooks. I know it even includes learning and understanding about how to interact with the outside world, how to actually live a meaningful life with values. So, I think learning together with non-disabled children would give them a lot of self-confidence and they will not feel different. And the sighted children will also learn to accept children with disabilities and not see them as different individuals. So, I actually feel it is a very good policy but what I also feel is the teachers who actually teach those students must be really trained to actually teach both disabled and non-disabled children alike. Because disabled children will need more attention and more time than the rest of the children.
RD: Ah ha.
Me: So, that way, the teachers have to be able to deal with this situation in such a way those special children who actually know they need extra time and help should not feel low. And the non-disabled children should not feel that they are smarter or more intelligent or that special children are less smart and not so good in studies. There is a risk that this kind of attitudes might develop among the children. Therefore, this has to be really, sensibly considered and addressed.
RD: You mentioned about some of the potential benefits that students with special needs derive by going to a regular school. Since you have been to a regular school yourself, can you describe some of the benefits that you have derived yourself by attending a regular mainstream school?
Me: Well…firstly I think the self-confidence and having that knowledge that you are being accepted as the so-called normal is a great advantage. So, after being at a regular school for a few years, I just began to feel part of that school. And especially when I used to score higher than the sighted friends, teachers used to praise me so much and that used to give me so much of moral strength and greater confidence. I used to feel that although I am disabled, I am not so bad. I realised if I strive, I can do well. That kind of motivation kicked in and that made me work harder. And also I did not have any interpersonal relationship problems with any of my sighted friends.
Me: I was able to get along with everybody. I had a very good circle of friends with whom I still have contacts through social media. In a way, I think it widened my world. Otherwise, if I had completed my entire education in special school like a school that was meant for just students with visual impairment, I would have really missed that. What I have today in my circle of friends would have been just visually impaired friends. So, it was really a good opportunity for me. I have learnt to co-exist and I have learnt a lot of lessons from my sighted people and their experiences and vice-versa. That way, we were able to understand each other’s needs, interests and lot of things. I think that way there was lot of advantage of being in a regular mainstream school. Otherwise, I would have really missed so many things in life.
RD: So, you are telling me that if you were to go to a school today, you would choose to go to a regular mainstream school than going to a special school that addresses the needs of children with special needs only?
Me: No, I think the concept of special school is similar to integrated school, am I right?
RD: Not really. I still have a problem interpreting the meaning of special schools used by the Ministry of Education for schools like Changangkha. I would call Muenselling Institute and Wangsel as a special school and still having issues in accepting SEN Schools used to identity schools like Changangkha, Kamji, Gelephu, Mongar and others. Because these are in a way pilot integrated schools. So when I say special schools, it means Muenselling Institute and Wangsel. Others, I would rather call them as integrated schools.
Me: Ok. Actually I would choose to go to an integrated school but not right from the beginning. I feel like at least up to the primary level, it should be in a special school for students with disabilities.
RD: Any reasons for this.
Me: I think we also need sometime to be comfortable with our own being before plunging into a very new world again. If I had really studied right from the pre-primary school in an integrated school, I would have faced lot of challenges. First of all, you don’t feel part of that community because you will feel yourself very different and you can develop very low self-esteem. So, I think in my case, it was a perfect timing. Till Class 6, I studied in Muenselling School where we had lot of other visually impaired students and friends. We did not feel lonely and we did not feel we are the only one with such problems. We had a good self-confidence and you have the life skills to interact with each other. So, with those 6 years of foundation of initial schooling in a special school, we are better able to adjust in a new environment to deal with sighted people with whom you have hardly been together before and with the wider world. Then after that we feel we are ready to be integrated and that would be the most perfect arrangement.
Me: So, even Wangsel Institute, I feel once they have been really trained, who knows most of them might be able to cope in a mainstream school someday provided the teachers taking classes for them have the sign language skills and proper training to teach such children. So, I think it is important to have such a foundation in the beginning to be able to benefit from full inclusion.
RD: You must be knowing about Educating for GNH that the Ministry of Education initiated a few years ago. How is this idea of educating children with disabilities together with other children in a regular mainstream school related to educating for GNH?
Me: Actually I have not yet thought of anything on that front but I think these two can go together very well. Because GNH is happiness for the overall population that may even include people with disabilities. So, I think inclusive education can also be a contributing factor to realising the GNH Education. That’s what I feel but as I said all integrated schools taking special needs children together with regular mainstream students should have the right faculty in place or teachers to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities are equally met. Inclusive education can be a part of GNH policy because GNH will not be complete without making the disabled segment of the population equally happy.
RD: Especially when we talk about inclusive education – the idea of including children with special needs in the mainstream regular education in Bhutan, what are some of your concerns?
Me: I don’t have any major concerns but I am just worried about the quality of the teachers, their ability, their skills to manage, to effectively handle both special and non-disabled children in the same boat. Because they have different needs and this is one thing I am bit worried about. The other thing is the accessibility issue. When you say inclusive education, the system, the schools or the institutions should have accessibility features within its campus so that all types of persons with disabilities can easily come in and go. Like we should have ramps for wheel chair users and footpaths and railing for visually impaired children. We have different types of disabilities and each type of disability has different needs. So those institutes and schools should be able to cater to the needs of different types of disabilities. I am just worried how much capable our schools and institutes are and how committed our concerned authorities are to actually promote these kind of facilities or put these kind of services in place so that children with disabilities or persons with disabilities will have no problem coming to schools to learn with other children. So, the advantages are great but the challenges need to be addressed too. If these things are in place, inclusive education in Bhutan can be successful and real.
RD: You mentioned about teacher training, you mentioned about access issues. In addition to this, if you were to make any recommendations to the concerned authorities for the success of inclusive education in Bhutan, what would you recommend?
Me: Ah…I am yet to see the Special Education Policy. I heard that it is being endorsed. Firstly, I think I need to see what is there in this Special Education Policy. I am sure it would have included many things that would actually enable children with disabilities to successfully cope in the normal learning environment. So, I would firstly recommend for the effective implementation of the Special Education Policy. I think that would help address majority of the issues.
RD: Why do think policy is important for such initiatives?
Me: Yes, policy is very important but having just a policy may not make a difference but the successful implementation of the policy by the Ministry of Education and concerned agencies can make a great difference.
RD: Any final thoughts about inclusive education in Bhutan?
Me: I think inclusive education isn’t being taught in the Colleges of Education. I guess like it is taught as an optional module. I feel it could be incorporated as a compulsory module that would actually prepare teachers with better knowledge and ideas to effectively handle students with disabilities if they ever come across one although all teachers may not have to teach such children in school.
Me: If it is made compulsory module, because teachers are people who deal directly with children in a school. For instance, in a school if a child cannot see what is written on the board and if that child is seated at the back, if the teacher is able to identify that need, the teacher can make a simple arrangement like bringing the child to the front. These are some simple arrangements, which can make big differences to such children and teachers are thus very important players in the success of inclusive education.
RD: Thank you very much for this highly informative interview. Thanks for your time and thanks once again.
Me: It’s my pleasure la.
RD: Thank you very much once again.