Editor’s Note: Brina Maxino is an assistant pre-school teacher and UNESCO Global Champion for Inclusion in Education. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
When I was 9 years old, a psychologist told my parents I had a low IQ because I was born with Down syndrome.
Seven years later, I graduated high school as class valedictorian. At the age of 20, I received a bachelor’s degree in arts with a major in history. Today, I am a pre-school assistant teacher, a Special Olympics Global Youth Ambassador and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. I am also the 2020 UNESCO Global Champion for Inclusion in Education.
I don’t think about what that psychologist said when I was a child, but I wonder how many children with disabilities are not fulfilling their potential because someone once said they couldn’t.
We can be more – and do more. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The recently released “2020 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report” (GEM) states that children and youth with disabilities are among the most marginalized and excluded people in the world. The same report says they are 2.5 times more likely never to attend school in their lifetime than other children. An estimated 650 million people are living with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region alone – this means millions of children are missing out.
Up to half of the roughly 65 million primary and lower secondary school-age children with disabilities in developing countries were already out of school before the Covid-19 pandemic. No country was prepared for Covid-19, but I feel more could have been done to protect children who were already marginalized before school closures began.
The GEM Report found that about 40% of low and lower-middle income countries did not support them during temporary school shutdowns. Children with disabilities were – and still are – disproportionately affected.
Distance learning also hasn’t been designed with us in mind. This leaves these children in danger of falling behind or withdrawing from education altogether.
December 3 marks International Day for Disabled Persons – a time to celebrate people with disabilities. The day also falls in the same week as the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is an important moment on the calendar to remind policy makers that most countries have committed to protecting the right to education for millions of disabled children.
Early on, I made a choice: to either accept unfairness or to advocate for our rights. As a person with disabilities, the challenges I have been faced with helped shape me – they have made me resilient, and most importantly prepared me to fight for the rights of others who are disadvantaged.
Despite my challenges, I persevered. I proved that with determination, hard work, belief in myself, and the love and support of my family, I can achieve my dreams and inspire others to do so.
As an assistant teacher, I am confronted daily with the challenges of Covid-19. Yet amid all the uncertainty and hardship created by the pandemic, there have been positive initiatives from around the world that shine a light on the resilience of families with children with disabilities and their teachers.
I had to learn how to navigate in Zoom and Skype learning methods, and check students’ works digitally. It’s hard for kids to focus when they are learning online, so I came up with ways to make learning more interesting for them through singing and dancing.
Children with disabilities need to be included. This means being able to study in a mainstream school, where there are enough teachers trained to provide support and where there is specialized curriculum and textbooks. We also need more teachers with disabilities, like me, to act as role models and to reduce the marginalization of children with special needs.
Learners with disabilities should not be discriminated against – quite the opposite, diversity among students is something that should be encouraged in all schools. Inclusion cannot be achieved if it is seen as an inconvenience, or if people believe the ability of a student is fixed.
My parents had to fight hard for a mainstream school to accept me in my country, the Philippines. If my parents had given up, or – even worse – listened to that psychologist, where would I be now?
It’s critical that education systems support and respond to all learners’ needs.
UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report’s Gina Dafalia contributed to this report.