Making a difference
By Vidushi Seneviratne
"Education for all" was the call issued more than forty years ago by the nations of the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted that "everyone has a right to education". But in countries such as Sri Lanka, this is not always the case for children with learning disabilities. Lack of resources, trained teachers and a positive attitude are some of the drawbacks.

Intellectual impairment is quite common among children in Sri Lanka. The key factor in dealing with this issue is identifying each child's individual needs and assisting him/her accordingly. While some need professional assistance, other less serious conditions merely require awareness on the part of those responsible for the child's education.

"We work with children with any sort of learning disability and assist teachers and other individuals to help these kids," says Shalini Wickremasooriya, a speech and language specialist holding a Master’s Degree in Speech and Language Difficulties from the University of Birmingham, UK who has initiated an effective programme to assist such children.

Learning disability is a term that covers specific kinds of learning differences that can cause an individual to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning and mathematics-based tasks. Most often children with such difficulties come across as being average, but on close observation are found to be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from another child of the same age.

Another common characteristic among such children is uneven areas of ability: a child who struggles with reading, writing and spelling, may be extremely capable in mathematics and science.

"Most of these children can receive an education in any average classroom, and can be integrated into a regular class, but due to their learning difficulties, they need special attention from the teacher. The important thing is that teachers need to be trained and capable of identifying the various needs of the child," says Shalini.

Dyslexia (reading and writing difficulties), dyscalculia (difficulties with mathematics) and speech and language difficulties are some of the conditions that fall under this category of learning disabilities. Behavioural disorders such as attention deficit disorders and hyperactivity are another such area that needs attention. Children with conditions such as the ones included in the autism spectrum, cerebral palsy and Down's Syndrome too, can be integrated into a regular classroom, depending on the level of the condition.

Under the training programme Shalini makes regular visits to special education units to work with teachers. She has so far worked with units situated in areas such as Colombo, Ja-ela, Negombo, Nattandiya and Chilaw. "Some of these centres have many difficulties, but we make do with the available resources. After all, these children are most comfortable in their own surroundings," she said.

Working with the children, parents and teachers, the teachers focus on making the child independent. With most of the children coming from families involved in cottage industries, the children too are gradually trained to get involved in the work.

"The usual procedure is that we identify the child's difficulties, get the parents involved, ask them what they expect and then set a target, usually five years. We then start working on the child's difficulties, while teaching him or her life skills, self-help skills, motor skills, language skills and also work on cognitive development," said Shalini. Children with similar difficulties are put together but an individual education plan is prepared for each child, depending on his/her individual needs.

"Identifying strengths to address weaknesses" being the basis of her work, a monthly syllabus is prepared and revised, once again depending on the child's needs. "There are various types of learning that fall into the categories of auditory, tactile and visual learning types. But since all children may not possess these capabilities, it is the teacher's responsibility to identify each child's weaknesses and abilities and use them in a productive way," says Shalini. Having a background in speech and drama, she uses these skills in her work as well.

Some schools in certain areas have a classroom especially assigned for students with various physical and intellectual difficulties, with teachers trained in working with children with special needs assigned to these classes. "Only a very few schools have this facility and there are many other children in need of such assistance. But this problem could be solved if all teachers are given a brief training in this area, where they are able to identify the needs of the slower learners and help them to lead regular lives," stresses Shalini.

Shalini also conducts a diploma training programme, which is based on how intervention in the early years can make a difference. Beginning with background information on the subject, the topics in the course vary from early child development and what teachers can do, to understanding learning disabilities and using parents as partners in the improvement process.

The 20-week course is held at the Ladies' College Department of Vocational Studies. A number of these diploma holders are already putting into practice their knowledge and positive results have been seen in a few mainstream schools, as well as special education units.

"I keep track and evaluate their work and I have seen many children improving due to the techniques used. Even the parents see a big difference in their children," said Shalini.

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