Japan faces a long and difficult road to promote inclusive education

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Satoko Tachibatake is convinced that she made the right decision to enroll her intellectually disabled son in a regular school with non-disabled classmates, even though this is still a rare step in Japan.

Like many other children with disabilities, Go, Tachibatake’s 8-year-old son with Down syndrome, was referred to a special school by local education authorities as he was deemed to have difficulty communicating with words.

What prompted Tacibatake to defy the recommendation was an encounter with a member of a group of parents who also have children with Down’s syndrome. The member said it is essential that these children associate with non-disabled people in order to function as capable adults later in life.

Photo taken on November 3, 2022 in Tokyo shows Satoko Tachibatake (right) and her 8-year-old son Go, who is intellectually disabled but attends a regular school with non-disabled classmates. (Kyodo)

“I have been told that children with disabilities will not be able to communicate with others without disabilities when they become adults if they don’t do so at an early stage in their lives,” said Tachibatake, 45.

But while Go has started taking regular classes, he still feels like he is considered a student with special needs, she says. She thinks some arrangements are needed to accommodate her son, but thinks they go too far.

Go, for example, has to go to school with an escort or tutor, against her will. His mother also had to find help on her own to sit with him in class.

“The school treats him like he was specially admitted here and really should go to a special school,” said Tachibatake, who belongs to a group of like-minded parents who are also looking for their children with disabilities. regularly attend classes, as well as their supporters.

“Most parents of children with disabilities don’t know that their children can attend regular classes and that they have the right to receive reasonable accommodation,” she said.

According to the Ministry of Education, the number of children receiving education in special classes or schools has increased in Japan, bucking the international trend to promote inclusive education where all children study in same classrooms.

In fiscal year 2021, the number of students attending special schools and special classes in compulsory education increased approximately 1.2 and 2.1 times, respectively, compared to 10 years earlier, although the number of children in the country has dropped amid low birth rates.

A ministry official, however, attributed the rise to demand from students and parents.

Go Tachibatake attends a math class with his assistant at an elementary school in Tokyo on July 4, 2022. (Kyodo)

They “have a better understanding of special education, which provides increased assistance to each child based on their respective needs,” the official said, citing features such as the small classes in which the children are educated.

But a United Nations panel that deals with the rights of people with disabilities has harshly criticized the situation, urging the Japanese government in September to end special education that separates children with disabilities from those without.

The committee recommended that Japan “adopt a national action plan for inclusive quality education, with specific goals, timelines and sufficient budget to ensure that all students with disabilities receive individualized support at all levels of education”.

It was the first time Japan had been under review since ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014.

Following the recommendation, Education Minister Keiko Nagaoka said the government would promote inclusive education, but also said, “We have no intention of ending special needs education. , which takes place in a variety of learning environments”.

Yoshihiro Kokuni, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of education, said the UN recommendation was “an extremely appropriate assessment”, as it was issued after around 100 people made up of persons with disabilities and their families traveled to Geneva to exchange views with the UN panel. members.

“Japan is way behind” in recognizing inclusive education, says education specialist Kokuni. “It’s about social justice,” he said, “not about creating a more efficient society or ensuring a more efficient learning environment.”

Although society is made up of people with diverse abilities and characteristics, many Japanese schools, which play such a formative role in children’s development, operate in an environment of segregation and exclusion, said Kokuni, who also leads the Center for education without school barriers.

He said there will be difficulties in achieving inclusive education due to the focus on academic performance, with teachers forced to raise their students’ grades rather than create a comfortable place for them.

Go Tachibatake attends a physical education class with his classmates at an elementary school in Tokyo on July 4, 2022. (Kyodo)

“I believe that it is school life that guarantees the growth of children,” Kokuni said, adding that lessons learned in the classroom form the basis of a student’s education, which he will cherish later in life. .

“In this sense, we should not think of dividing the place of learning, but rather of creating a place where children can live together,” he said.

Despite the difficulties and his own initial doubts about whether able-bodied students would benefit just as much, Tachibatake believes having Go attend regular classes has been a transformative experience for everyone involved.

She said Go has developed remarkably since his early days in school, where he came to show a selfless concern for helping others. She has also discovered that her classmates sometimes understand her better than her teachers.

Tachibatake said education officials cannot imagine the positive results of an inclusive approach because many did not grow up with children with disabilities.

“Children with disabilities, including my son, need to learn how to get help when they can’t do certain things,” she said. “It is also very important that the children around them have the opportunity to learn to associate with them.”

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