Access to quality education – a fundamental right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – remains elusive for many. For learners with disabilities (LWDs), the fight for accessible education can feel all the more bleak and dystopian. Systemic issues and a lack of specialized teachers relegates them to the margins, locking away their potential. Even worse, LWDs are ten times less likely to go to school than other children (Plan International, 2013). In fact, internationally, 9 in 10 learners with disabilities in low and lower middle income countries do not have access to education (Global Partnership Organization, n.d.). The Philippines is a prime example to these with 314, 000 or 71% of LWDs are considered out-of-school youth as per 2021 (Chi, 2023; Romero, 2021).

Learners with disabilities are defined as students with difficulty acquiring basic skills or academic content due to difficulty using or understanding spoken or written language (Council for Exceptional Children, n.d.). Even though the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes that all children deserve to access learning opportunities (Right to Education, n.d.), education remains highly inaccessible to able-bodied students, and is further inaccessible to LWDs. This deters the learners’ full development of their potential that is supposed to enable their effective participation in society (Right to Education, n.d.). As a result, LWDs go on to experience lack of representation, heightened susceptibility to exploitation, increased risk of poverty, and unemployment (Adabala, 2020). In fact, a 2023 report published by Rappler reveals that 80% of persons with disabilities in the Philippines are not employed.

What’s the scoop?

The current Philippine legal framework attempts to provide all learners with disabilities the accommodations needed for them to pursue education. This is exhibited in both the basic right of access to education for PWDs (Magna Carta for Persons with Disability, § 12) and other statutes which provide for specific accommodations which cater to the needs of LWDs, such as the Filipino Sign Language Act.

However, significant challenges remain in translating these laws into practice. In an interview, Ellen Gasendo, a parent of a learner with a disability, stressed the inaccessibility issues they faced while trying to access education. These issues include facing rejection from schools. “In senior high, they don’t accept [special needs students] anymore because their personnel were not trained to handle special needs students,” Gasendo emphasized.

According to Karina Castro, the principal of a school that caters to LWDs, students without disabilities, and gifted students, “In terms of inclusion, there are schools that say they are inclusive, but their programs are not really for inclusion. [The government] needs to look at the schools and oversee the implementation of inclusive programs.”

Financial barriers also pose an issue. The poverty rates are 50% higher in households with children with disabilities. Aside from expensive tuition, the inaccessible and costly health services challenge education access. “[Aside from tuition] we also have to spend for his therapy, his counseling, his regular sessions with his psychologist,” Ms. Gasendo commented. “Assessments are expensive. 10,000 is just a piece of paper. Iba ang babayaran sa speech therapy,” Ms. Castro added.

Moreover, issues with the lack of teaching manpower and lack of proactive initiative from the government dooms the system. In fact, in the 2024 national budget, the DepEd didn’t allocate a separate line item for the child find system (Chi, 2023). For the 2023 national budget, the 532 million budget proposal for the SPED program was not considered (Dela Pena, 2023).

Left out

The current education status can also be characterized as non-inclusive with the students feeling exclusion. Robin Velez, a current Atenean who was previously enrolled in a special education program, witnessed its shortcomings which stunted his growth as a learner.

“I think the special education class needs ways to help the kids [feel like they] are still human beings and not something that is separated from society, because that is how I felt back then with the intermediate section and the therapy session I attended,” He stated.

Families also feel discouraged in pushing their children to access education due to fear of discrimination. “We have to enhance their special ability. If you think na walang magagawa ang bata, you are the reason why the child can’t do anything else,” Castro noted.

Questioned quality

In addition, educational institutions struggle with limitations in teaching materials and difficulties in implementing specialized teaching. Ms. Castro emphasized the importance of having Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) crafted specifically for the students but also highlighted the difficulty of implementing these due to the lack of assistive tools. Furthermore, teachers often find themselves underpaid and overworked as they must also handle other tasks aside from teaching such as assessing and documenting the progress of their students.

“Heavier ang workload. Aside from making lesson plans and assessments and teaching, they also have the IEP so they have to modify the activities or content or approach. And then the teachers need to have proper documentation. If you are going to implement IEP, you have to document the progress of each student,” Castro said.

The lack of emotional and psychological support also bears deep in the teaching force. “The parents trust you to make a difference in the lives of the children. You can’t give them up. If you can’t get past that baggage, it’s heavy emotionally,” Castro mentioned.

What should be done?

Given the situation, Castro proposed that the government should provide better mechanisms aimed to heighten education accessibility. This includes providing teachers proper training, laying down standardized processes, providing proper facilities and assistive tools, and making assessments free. “Ang lungkot kasi ever since, meron na tayong special children. Pero andito pa lang tayo,” the principal concluded.

While existing laws promote the right to quality education for LWDs, significant work remains to ensure accessibility and inclusivity. Education is the backbone of a society, and the Philippines cannot afford to neglect this crucial sector. By addressing the learning gaps and implementing effective solutions, the Philippines can move towards a more inclusive and equitable education system.

Ateneo SPEED would like to thank Ms. Ellen Gasendo, Ms. Katrina Castro, and Mr. Robin Velez for their time and insights lent to this article.

The views and opinions of the writers and editors do not necessarily reflect or state those of the publication’s nor the organization’s.


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