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Education for all, including those with special needs

By Natalie Mohammed

Director of the Down Syndrome Family Network and Special Education Teacher

What do you understand when you hear the term ‘special needs education?’.

Let me break it down for you. Simply put, according to Wikipedia, “Special needs refers to individuals who require assistance for disabilities that may be medical, mental or psychological”. Education, on the other hand, refers to “the process of facilitating learning or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, morals, beliefs and habits”.

If we combine both and put it into perspective in my field of work, we use this term to describe the manner in which we adapt the curriculum to meet the specific needs of our students.

As with all students, education does not necessarily mean that we should only teach academics, but rather, that we strive to foster the holistic development of a child. Perhaps, in some instances, students may be more academically inclined, but for those children who have been formally diagnosed as a student with a disability, an Individualised Educational Plan (IEP) is recommended to develop and cater to that child’s specific learning needs.

Pre-Covid, obtaining an education as a special needs child in the public school system was difficult with a lack of clear policy and limited access, tools, and resources to do the job. Covid-19 has widened the gap for these students.

For those who can access online learning, teachers like myself continue to use our expertise and creativity to help our students so that they can succeed. Many of us have come to the realisation that the ‘chalk-and-talk’ style of teaching does not work with everyone, and students who have various learning challenges will never benefit from these teaching methods and only become frustrated.

Think about how challenging it is for children in typical schools, and now imagine a child who requires hands-on teaching, the one who needs to feel and use their hands in order to learn and understand.

To adapt to this new normal, I have had to adjust my teaching methodology. I have found these simple steps helpful for my students to acquire knowledge and to be able to learn remotely.

Students learn best in an environment which caters to all their senses, visual, tactile, and auditory. The challenge is to find new ways to communicate and keep your students engaged.

  • The use of more graphics and animation and making the learning fun and interactive for the student.
  • Introducing a range of activities as an alternative to having the students sit behind a screen for long periods and can include having the student find objects from their home environment which fits into the learning objectives that will allow for full engagement.
  • Researching and using a range of free educational and interactive sites available now in the form of games that children can use for follow-up lessons and in their own downtime.
  • Alternative means of assessment to measure learning objectives with students. These can include oral explanation, presentations, drawing or even a dramatic interpretation or skit.

Teaching students with disabilities is filled with a mix of emotions, overwhelming and challenging to say the least, but if a student gives you the correct response it makes it all worthwhile.

As a teacher, my main objective is to see my students live meaningful lives and to be integrated into society and accepted as equals.

Covid-19 has greatly affected us all. Further attention to special education policy and legislation is required in order to ensure that no child is left behind. This is what ultimately will lead to a truly inclusive society where there is opportunity for all. It starts with education for all.