This blog was written by HKI’s Director of Communications after a recent field visit to Indonesia.
Most of us living in the United States take the freedom and ability to attend school for granted. Over the past 100 years, great strides have been made to ensure that all children, regardless of who they are or where they come from, have access to public education, as well as the opportunity to learn and grow through all that it offers.
However, for many children living with disabilities in other parts of the world this is not the case. In fact, of the estimated 1.5 million children in Indonesia who live with disabilities, fewer than 4% have access to any educational services. Historically, Indonesia offered very few options for students with special needs children. If one of these schools was too far for a small child to commute to every day, that child often stayed home and received no formal education at all.
In 2003, Indonesia’s Ministry of Education invited Helen Keller International to help forge pathways of change and new opportunity in this area. Over the next ten years, with the support of USAID and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Opportunities for Vulnerable Children (OVC) program introduced the policy, infrastructure and professional training needed to improve access to inclusive education for children with vision impairments and other special needs who attend Indonesia’s public schools.
To date, more than 26,000 children have benefited from these efforts and are thriving in integrated classrooms throughout Jakarta.
One of the keys to the success of this program has been the training of hundreds of educators as resource teachers. These dedicated professionals partner with traditional classroom teachers to ensure that special needs students receive additional assistance so they can engage and fully benefit while learning in an integrated setting with the rest of their classmates.
I met one of these resource teachers, Merliya Wanti, on a recent visit to a public school in Jakarta. A bright, enthusiastic young woman, Merilya first thought of working in special education when she was still a student herself. The high school she attended required her to take long bus trips back and forth each day. One rainy morning on the crowded commute, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what her trip would be like if she could not see. She wondered how children with disabilities could make a trip like this every day, and, upon further investigation, learned many of them simply cannot. That experience inspired Merilya to focus her own learning on becoming a special education teacher.
Through Helen Keller International’s OVC program, Merliya received 18 months of intensive training that included both classroom learning and practical learning at targeted schools. Technical assistance in developing her curriculum was provided by the Perkins School for the Blind, Helen Keller’s alma mater.
In addition to working closely with traditional classroom teachers and the school administration, the school Merilya works in has a vibrant resource room for the 27 special needs students enrolled there. The colorful space features full-length mirrors for speech therapy, a trampoline and balls for physical therapy, as well as video equipment and other teaching aids. The room serves as a place for these children to work with Merliya one-on-one. Each student’s progress is carefully monitored with individualized goals and benchmarks based on their needs. Many show significant progress within the first three months of being introduced to the inclusive learning system.
On the day I visited, Merilya was giving a lesson on fractions for two 2nd grade boys, one with low vision and one with a learning disability. Although their classmates could be heard outside playing and laughing, the young boys did not seem to mind. In fact, they were very much enjoying themselves. The confidence gained from the extra time would later be carried back into the classroom and at home.
In addition to providing more access to children with disabilities, Merliya notes that the integrated experience encourages social development as well. All children learn lessons in respect and compassion through the experience and thrive in the diversity of their environment.
Merliya is also developing as an educator, gaining knowledge through working with a variety of disabilities, from low vision to hearing impairment to autism and more. She sets her own goals for professional development so that she can keep up with students as their needs change each year. She continues her education through peer exchanges with other resource teachers and takes additional training sessions provided by a local university that has established a relationship with the school.
At the same time, traditional classroom teachers and the school’s headmaster participate in workshops to improve their capacity on providing the best integrated education environment for their students.
Mrs. Juliani, the headmaster, noticed an improvement in the style of all the teachers at her school. With the integrated classrooms, teachers are more patient and give children more room to grow. Prior to coming to her current school, Mrs. Juliani did not think inclusive education could work effectively and benefit a school culture. She now says that she has learned a great deal through working with Merliya and encourages other principals in her community to embrace the inclusive education model.
The most important benefit, of course, is in providing educational access for the children who would otherwise miss out on the opportunity to gain a formal education. Providing children with special needs the opportunity to attend their local school with other children in their neighborhood is a major step toward empowering them to reach their full potential. Helen Keller International hopes expand this program to provide essential access to education, with the help of wonderful teachers like Merliya, to more Indonesian children in the years to come.