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Disabled students suffer under reluctant education system

By Korea Herald

Published : April 19, 2016 - 17:19

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For Doh Woo-gyung in Busan, a mother of a 14-year-old with brain lesions, it was a daring decision to send him to a general public school instead of a special school for the disabled.

“As soon as my son graduates high school, he will have to survive in the nondisabled society,” the 44-year old Doh told The Korea Herald. She said she wanted her child to have an opportunity to mingle with the nondisabled.
But the mere task of going to school and spending a day there has become a challenge, as the son needs help moving due to paralysis of both legs.

“My son needs support to move and to study and even to go the restroom just as all other disabled students need. But as only one assistant teacher takes care of all five disabled students at the school, there are sometimes conflicts between parents over having the assistant teacher,” she said.

Members of civic group Korean Parents’ Network for People with Disabilities urge the city government to draw up support measures for children with developmental disabilities at Seoul City Hall, Monday. Yonhap Members of civic group Korean Parents’ Network for People with Disabilities urge the city government to draw up support measures for children with developmental disabilities at Seoul City Hall, Monday. Yonhap
As much as the family was determined at the beginning, Doh said she is now considering moving him to a special education school, as attending a general public one is just turning out not to be realistic.

Despite the Korean government’s efforts to integrate the disabled and nondisabled in class, the lack of practical support for disabled students in general schools is pushing the disabled to look for alternatives.

Lackluster progress in “inclusive” education

Marking the 36th annual Disabled Persons Day on Wednesday, Korea has strived to integrate the classes of the disabled with those of the nondisabled for years.

The concept of “inclusive class” was first introduced in Korea under the special education promotion act in 1994. The law aimed to protect the educational rights of special needs students and ensure that they learn together with nondisabled students.

The regulation requires schools to provide full support for disabled students to be part of the class.

As of last year, the local disabled population reached about 2.4 million. Of them around 88,000 are underage students and about 70 percent go to general schools for inclusive classes.

“The environment of general schools is very helpful for the disabled as it educationally stimulates them. They not only have chances to study knowledge, but also learn how to interact with the nondisabled,” said special education professor Cho Hong-joong from Chonnam National University in Gwangju.

Despite the high participation rate in inclusive classes, the ideal, however, has not been practically implemented due mainly to lack of manpower and measures that are needed to embrace the various types of disability.

About 18,000 special education teachers take care of the 88,000 disabled students, which is one faculty member for every 4.8 disabled students. Under the special education law, the ratio was stipulated to be at least four students per one teacher.

Unlike the initial goal of inclusive education, many schools have also tended to separately run special education classrooms for the disabled. About 9,900 special education classrooms were operating at general schools in the country last year, up by 42 percent compared to 2007.

They have all the disabled students in one separate classroom regardless of the disability types, and special education teachers teach them with the support of a few assistant teachers.

Of the 70 percent of students going to general schools, only about 18 percent of the disabled students study together with the nondisabled in general classrooms, the ministry said.

This has led to the parents and educators of the disabled pointing out that the current system does not achieve the true goal of the inclusive class.

“It’s critical to evaluate whether there is an actual educational effect of the inclusive education. Going to general school does not necessarily mean actual inclusion. Is it a true inclusive class when students with different disabilities are unilaterally taught by one or two special education teachers in a separate classroom?” said Lee Moon-hi, the president of disabled rights group Korea Differently Abled Federation.

The Education Ministry defended that expanding the special education classrooms is part of efforts to reflect the reality.

“The government fundamentally seeks for the inclusive class. In reality, however, not all disabled children can follow the regular curriculum. Depending on the disability level under certain criteria, students are sent to the special education classrooms or special education schools,” said an official from the Education Ministry.

Many disabled rights activists do recognize that practical inclusive education is challenging for those with severe disabilities and the need for special education for them.

They, however, also point out that efforts to make classrooms more inclusive will only come hand-in-hand with the overall improvement of the current education system in the country.

“The inclusive class is not difficult in the preschool stage as the learning level is elementary. Starting from middle school, however, nondisabled students prepare for the college entrance exam under the grade-oriented education system. As the curriculum gets harder, many disabled students face hurdles in following the courses,” said Kim Chi-hun, the disability policy and research director of Korean Parents’ Network for People with Disabilities. 

Under the current education rule, all students are mandated to take certain hours of a number of subjects to go onto the next level of education. These compulsory subjects are unilaterally determined by the ministry, posing more challenges to those with disabilities.

“Unless the whole education system that focuses on exams and grades is changed, there is no way for the disabled to be part of the class. The ultimate goal of inclusive education is to embrace and respect the diversity of students, ranging from race, gender to disability."

Special education schools not welcomed by neighbors

Facing barriers in general middle and high schools, many parents of disabled students tend to give up on the schools with inclusive classes and inevitably choose special education schools.

“The transfer rate of the disabled from general schools to special education during the middle and high school period is three times that of the rate during the preschool and elementary school period. This shows that the actual inclusive class failed,” said professor Cho.

For parents, however, deciding to transfer their children to a special education school still poses hurdles, as there are not enough of such institutions nationwide.

According to the Education Ministry, a total of 167 special education schools were running in the country as of last year. Only one new school was established in the year.

About 26,100 disabled students attend special education schools, which accounts for about 30 percent of the total number of disabled students.

While the ministry vowed to build 21 new special education schools across the country by 2019, the outcome remains uncertain, as many residents oppose building them in their neighborhoods.

In the case of Seoul, which currently runs 29 special education schools, no new schools have been built since 2003.

Two special education schools for children with developmental disorders were initially planned to be built in Seoul by 2018 and 2019, but neither has broken ground for construction yet.

“It is true that the number of special education schools is insufficient in the country. (The ministry) has put efforts to establish more schools. But such plans often face fierce opposition from residents who are concerned with the image of their communities or their land value,” the ministry official added.

While the government attempts to boost measures to improve the educational rights of disabled students, what parents consider most essential is raising public awareness over the disabilities.

“Many nondisabled students and their parents think that they are yielding their space and time to the disabled students. But that’s not true. They overlook that the disabled also have educational rights,” said Doh, the mother of the son with brain lesions.

Some stress that understanding is most helpful than anything else to true integration.

“When a student with a developmental disorder suddenly screams in class or gets out of the classroom, there’s a need for a certain level of awareness toward nondisabled students so that they can understand and accept the behavior. The idea of inclusive class is not merely for underage students but for the whole community. What many parents hope for is the true integration of their disabled children into society after graduation,” said Choi Seong-bun, a mother of a 13-year-old girl with autism.

By Lee Hyun-jeong (rene@heraldcorp.com)