Japan faces a long and difficult road to promoting inclusive education

Satoko Tachibatake is convinced she made the right decision to have her mentally handicapped son attend a regular school with classmates without disabilities, even though doing so is still a rare move in Japan.

Like many other disabled children, Tachibataki’s 8-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, was directed to a special needs school by local education authorities where he was judged to have difficulties communicating with words.

What made Tachibataki defy the recommendation was an encounter with a member of a group of parents who also had children with Down syndrome. The member said it was essential that these children relate to those without disabilities in order to function as capable adults later in life.

A 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 classmates without disabilities. Favorite

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

But while Go has started attending regular classes, he still seems to be seen as a student with special needs, she says. She thinks some arrangement is needed to accommodate her son, but thinks she’s going too far.

Go, for example, you must go to school with a chaperone or guardian, against his wishes. His mother also had to find an assistant on her own to sit with him in his classes.

said Tachibatake, who is from a group made up of like-minded parents who also strive to have their children with disabilities regularly attend classes, along with their supporters.

“Most parents with disabled children do not know that their children can attend regular classes and that they have the right to reasonable accommodation,” she said.

According to the Ministry of Education, the number of children receiving education in special needs classes or schools is on the rise in Japan, bucking the international trend of promoting inclusive education where all children study in the same classrooms.

In fiscal 2021, the number of students enrolled in special needs schools and special needs classes in compulsory education increased about 1.2-fold and 2.1-fold, respectively, from 10 years earlier, even though the number of children in the country declined amid a low birth rate.

But a ministry official opposed the increase to a request from students and parents.

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

They have a “better understanding of special education, which offers increased assistance to each child according to each child’s needs,” the official said, noting such features as the small classes in which children learn.

But a United Nations panel that deals with the rights of people with disabilities has been highly critical of the situation, urging the Japanese government in September to stop special education that separates children with disabilities from others.

The committee recommended that Japan “adopt a national action plan on the quality of inclusive education, with specific goals, time frames and adequate budget to ensure that all students with disabilities receive individual support at all levels of education.”

This was the first time that Japan had undergone a 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 do not intend to end special needs education, which takes place in diverse educational settings.”

The UN recommendation was a “very appropriate assessment”, said Yoshihiro Kokone, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, made after about 100 people with disabilities and their families visited Geneva to exchange views with the UN panel. Individuals.

“Japan is very late” in recognizing universal education, said Kokone, who specializes in education. He said, “It is a matter of social justice, not creating a more effective society or one that will ensure a more effective learning environment.”

Although society is made up of people with different 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 Kokone, who also heads the school’s Center for Barrier-Free Education. .

He said there will be challenges to achieving inclusive education due to the focus on academic performance, with pressure on teachers to raise the grades of their students rather than creating a comfortable place for them.

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

“I believe that school life is what ensures children’s development,” Kokoni said, adding that lessons learned in class form the foundation for a student’s education, which they cherish later in life.

“In this sense, we should not think in terms of how the learning space is divided, but instead how to create a place where children can live together,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, and her initial skepticism about whether non-disabled students would benefit as much, Tachibataki believes that Go’s attending regular classes has been a transformative experience for everyone involved.

She said Go has developed significantly since he started in school, as he has come to show a selfless interest in helping others. I also discovered that his classmates sometimes understood him better than his teachers.

Tachibatake said those in charge of education 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 important for the children around them to have opportunities to learn how to communicate with them.”

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