“We have no special needs children. Just children with special needs.”- Uwe Maurer
In a survey done in Jamaica, in collaboration with the World Bank, Dr Barbara Matalon noted that approximately 17 per cent of the population had some type of learning disability.
As educators, we are always in search of ways and means to improve students’ outcomes. The recently published story about baby Soul-Heart has highlighted how challenging it is for parents who have children with special needs to find a school. Soul-Heart, who has high-functioning autism functions exceptionally well at age three. His parents have found it difficult to find a school which can cater to his needs.
The recently released Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exam results revealed that more work is required in the core subject areas in order to get our students at the level of proficiency. Only 45 per cent of the 41, 000 students who sat the grade-six school leaving examination were proficient in Language Arts, while in Mathematics, 41 per cent of students attained proficiency. In order for a student to be classified as being proficient, a score of 50 per cent or more is required.
Many students who struggle with reading, in fact, are able to identify words; however, a significant number of these students are unable to comprehend what was read. Reading is a process in which readers comprehend and construct meaning. Almost all children begin to exhibit understanding and learning about reading and writing early in their lives. This process is usually referred to as Emergent Literacy. Sadly, in any population there will be a percentage of students who will have difficulties reading. This disconnect is problematic not only for the students involved but also for the parents who, oftentimes, become frustrated.
The Lindamood-Bell Approach is a multisensory strategy to reading which breaks down learning to read into concrete skills. These include connecting letters to sounds and blending sounds into words. Regrettably, many of our students have a very weak base regarding phonemic development and this will, undoubtedly, contribute to serious problems.
Strategies to support reading and comprehension
In April of 2017, the Education Ministry facilitated two Lindamood-Bell Learning Professional Development Workshops for Jamaican teachers from over 20 schools, both in the public and private education sectors. The teachers were drawn from Early Childhood throughout the secondary level. The Lindamood-Bell Approach to reading is particularly helpful for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder and dyscalculia.
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in reading. Students who have this condition have an issue reading accurately and fluently. Dyslexia often creates other barriers to learning such as Reading Comprehension, Spelling, Writing and Mathematics. Research indicates that is quite common for children with dyslexia to have other learning challenges, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Among the questions we need to ask is, what help is available to parents and guardians of special needs students? There are numerous parents who are clueless regarding where they should turn for help. Many parents are concerned, and rightly so, regarding the lack of special education spaces in Jamaica’s education system, especially at the secondary level of public education. Dyslexia is often misrepresented. There are those who view dyslexia as a visual issue since students often write backwards or reverse letters. The inability to recognize letter sound is very common in students who are dyslexic. However, authorities on the matter state that dyslexia is not a problem with vision or with seeing letters in the wrong direction. Researchers have stated that while dyslexia impacts learning, it’s not a problem of intelligence.
Dyscalculia is a learning disability in Mathematics. Students who are impacted by this learning disorder oftentimes have problems with quantities and concepts such as bigger and smaller. Such students often struggle with mathematical symbols and with working memory. Another important point to highlight is that Visual-Spatial representation of numbers is usually a problem for such pupils. Such students obviously require more support to overcome this challenge.
Let us briefly look at Auditory Processing Disorder or APD. Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder or (CAPD) is a condition that makes it difficult for students to recognize subtle differences in sounds in words.
There are several kinds of auditory processing issues. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. Students who are affected with APD can have weaknesses in one or more areas. The following are examples.
Auditory discrimination: The ability to notice, compare and distinguish between distinct and separate sounds. For example, the words seventy and seventeen may sound alike.
Auditory figure-ground discrimination: The ability to focus on important sounds in a noisy setting.
Auditory Memory: The ability to recall what you have heard, either immediately or when you need it later.
Auditory Sequencing: The ability to understand and recall the order of sounds and words. For example, a student might write “ephelant” instead of elephant.
However, one of the disadvantages of the Lindamood Bell Approach regarding Reading and Comprehension is the fact that the programme is not widely used in public schools. Additionally, the cost associated with the programme makes it prohibitive for the average parent to access for their child. It is approximately $4,000 per hour for this intervention programme and this clearly is outside the reach of many Jamaicans.
Embracing a culture of inclusiveness
Oftentimes, when we speak of special needs we tend to think of the student who requires a shadow at school in order to function or that student who is unable to help him or herself such as those who suffer from severe cerebral palsy. However, special needs are far more complex than what first meets the eye.
According to ParentLink, an online source, ‘special needs’ is a broad term used to describe those who require assistance in educational settings because of physical, mental, behavioural or medical disabilities or delays. The USAA Educational Foundation states that special needs can be further categorized into four distinct types: physical, developmental, behavioural/emotional and sensory impairment.
As a country, we need to embrace all our children regardless of their disabilities. Disability discrimination has no place in a modern society. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states in Article 28, that each child has a right to an education. Every Jamaican child should be given the opportunity to obtain an education. The society, including all the stakeholders, needs to revisit Special Education with the aim of allocating more resources and support to this area.
We need to encourage more private-public sector partnerships in order to facilitate more special needs facilities. Unquestionably, the society requires more places for students who are challenged. Clearly, there are some special needs students who will not be able to function well in the regular school system. However, in instances where such special needs students can benefit from attending regular schools, this should be encouraged.
We need to realize that early intervention can make the difference between a student with a learning disability achieving his maximum potential and another student who does not. There is a sense of urgency to train more teachers to adequately address students with special needs based learning challenges. Parents of special needs children must explore all opportunities in order to get the best possible help for their children.
As a society we need to ensure that our education system is inclusive. Our education system must address the social and emotional development and various learning styles of each student. Each student can learn. However, we must put in place a holistic programme which will make certain that each student is afforded the opportunity to learn.
In the words of Robert M. Hensel, it’s time we take our focus off disabilities, so we can see the person first.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
My blog is at www.wayaine.blogspot.com