Written by Elsa Sichrovsky.
Traditionally, Taiwanese society has tended to view children with SEN (Special Educational Needs) as a source of shame on their parents. Based on the principle of karma, disability was believed to be punishment for his or her parents’ past sins. Before the 1970s, if not kept hidden at home to avoid friends’ and neighbours’ judgment, children with disabilities were often sent to institutions staffed with under-qualified faculty without proper certification. On many occasions, these students were subjected to unregulated discipline measures such as corporal punishment and confinement. Following the UN Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons in 1975, Taiwan’s disability policy has sought to keep up with its standards of universal access to education and protection of vulnerable individuals from institutionalised discrimination. In 1984, the Special Education Act, which is largely based on the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) model of special education from the United States, was adopted as Taiwan’s special education policy.
As of 2019, government statistics estimate a total of 105000 students with disabilities nationwide, with a growing trend of special education applications as disability awareness expands among parents. According to Article 11 of the Special Education Act, special education forms for students from elementary school to senior high school primarily take on three forms: a centralised special education class, a decentralised resource room, or an itinerant resource program. Students who pass placement and assessment examinations – and are fortunate enough to claim a seat in a special education class or resource room before reaching the government-stipulated quota – are placed in one of these three programs. It is important to note that special education is divided into special education for unusually gifted students and special education for students with disabilities in Taiwan. This article discusses special education for children with disabilities. Resource rooms and itinerant resource programs fall into inclusive education, which places children with disabilities in general education classrooms for most of their schooling with assistance for particular areas in the aforementioned resource room or program. Currently, over 90 per cent of students (elementary to high school) with disabilities are put into inclusive education programs.
Taiwan has adopted the American IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) model of special education, which seeks to ensure that every child receives equal education in the “least restrictive environment.” It states that children should be educated with their peers whenever possible. Thus, only when the child’s disability is severe to the point that separate education is necessary should children learn in different classes. Article 18 of the Special Education Act states that all children must receive education “based on appropriateness, individualisation, localisation, accessibility, and inclusion”, putting all children’s education at their respective neighbourhood schools as a priority. Article 22 forbids schools from rejecting applicants based on their disability. Nevertheless, there is a disconnect between the ideal environment stipulated in the Special Education Act, and the plight of students with SEN caught in the complexities of funding, education, and school politics. While inclusive education is an attractive educational model that follows world trends in special education, it has faced obstacles in being effectively enforced, leaving students to suffer the effects of an incomplete education:
Under the right circumstances, inclusive education does provide the benefit of allowing non-disabled children to interact with and learn about disabled children. In my work as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I observed the successful integration of some high-functioning disabled children who eventually became an accepted member of the peer group, and their disabilities were no longer negatively called attention to. However, this required positive leaders within the peer group, strong class ties, and deep connections between the teacher and students. This kind of ideal balance is hard to come by and ends up being the exception rather than the norm.
According to the Special Education Act, teacher training in Taiwan only requires teachers to take three credits of special education courses. This elementary training on how to educate children with special needs is insufficient. Without extensive knowledge of how to effectively present information to students with SEN, time will be spent teaching unsuitable methods that fail to have positive results. I have had students with SEN and found myself struggling to balance between ensuring a productive environment for other students and attending to student’s with SEN. Faced with the average class size of up to 30 different students – who each present different learning challenges – along with a lack of training in techniques to accommodate special learning needs, teachers may focus on merely minimising the level of disruption created by the disabled student. Thus, instead of helping the child develop effective coping mechanisms, teachers might remove the child from stressful social situations or pacify them to continue with the high volume of content they are required to cover in each class period.
Not only are teachers insufficiently educated, but the public’s lack of understanding about the nature of disability has also caused increased opposition directed towards teachers of inclusive classrooms. Despite the dedicated efforts of teachers who were already encumbered with numerous administrative responsibilities in addition to their work as educators, I have witnessed students with disabilities become the target of disapproval and negative social pressure. The prevalence of inaccurate perceptions of disability as something that should disappear through the process of growing up, or overcome with effort and harsh discipline, has led to a deeply-rooted culture of fear and discomfort at the prospect of co-education with a child who has a disability. Parents may present teachers with demands for their child not to be seated with certain students or request the teacher to suppress manifestations of disability with stringent disciplinary measures. Faced with complaints from parents who perceive disability as a hindrance to their child’s learning, teachers are caught between a disabled child who requires extra attention and dissatisfied parents, who would rather not have a disabled child learning in the same classroom as their child.
While government stipulations may appear to establish a strong structure of support and resources for students with a disability, the situation on the ground is often far from ideal. Most schools lack the trained staff and financial resources actually to implement IEPs for children with special needs. Many schoolteachers are already overloaded with large classroom sizes, stringent demands and requests from parents, and hosting extracurricular activities such as contests and art projects. With a child who has special needs added to the classroom comes the added stress of managing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and attending IEP meetings with special education professionals and parents. Article 7 of the Special Education Act requires educational institutions to hire professionals with a background in special education to supervise special education administration. However, the Special Education Act’s current definition of educational background in special education is simply three or more credit hours of special education courses. The government also provides seminars and workshops on special education for educators. However, a few hours of special education courses can only provide a surface understanding of the disabilities educators face in an integrated classroom. Article 28 of the Special Education Act states that a multidisciplinary team should develop IEPs in consultation with parents. Funding limitations might mean that IEPs are simply another task tacked onto an administrator’s already lengthy to-do list, limiting the implementation’s thoroughness.
Finland is also a country that follows the inclusive education model. However, its implementation is closer to the ideal of combining social integration and providing professional assistance to students in need. Each school has a special education teacher who has a master’s degree and an additional year of special education training, making six years of education before being entrusted with students. The special education teacher works with the homeroom teacher to assist a small number of pupils with special needs or work with individual students individually as needed. Rather than reserving special education for a select minority of those whose issues are severe enough to pass rigorous assessments, nearly 20 per cent of Finnish students receive educational assistance during their years of compulsory education. Special education teachers are supported by a truly multidisciplinary task force: they meet with the principal, school nurse, school psychologist, school social worker, and homeroom teachers twice a month to discuss IEPs and make adjustments.
While Taiwan may not have the funding or administrative resources to fully replicate Finland’s educational structure, Finland’s special education model shows that if disabled children are to be included in the classroom with other children, special education teachers need years of in-depth training on dealing with different learning needs. The education of exceptional children should be a joint effort supported by qualified professionals. Continued public awareness of disability, particularly learning disabilities, must continue to grow so children can receive needed support instead of being castigated for behavioural issues. Parents need to be cooperative with specialised learning programs and support their children with diagnosis and treatment. Only then will inclusive education be truly inclusive of all students, regardless of their individual learning needs.
Elsa Sichrovsky is a writer and English instructor living in southern Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Disabilities and Society.