Integrating children with special needs into mainstream schools is hard enough in countries with both experience and resources; in countries with little of either, it is a daily struggle between good intentions and overwhelming odds. As more developing countries take on this struggle volunteers from western countries are becoming involved. Voluntary Service Overseas deals with about 30 requests a year for help in this area and says the number is growing steadily.
In Thailand, where VSO has been working in special needs education for more than a decade and currently has 20 volunteers in this field, VSO has recently seen great progress in new legislation that grants special needs children the right to mainstream schooling.
In a country where disabled children are often hidden away at home, where teachers are inexperienced in dealing with special needs, and much classroom instruction is "chalk and talk", it is a struggle to put this into practice. "Our volunteers are helping identify special needs students, helping train teachers, and generally trying to bridge the gap between the new policy and the classroom," says Katrina Nevin-Ridley of VSO.
Emily Champion, 27, a special needs teacher from Bristol, has been working at a district education office in an industrial area just south of Bangkok since last September, helping teachers assess children and develop individual learning plans and classroom resources.
She enjoys her work "enormously", gets a friendly welcome in all the schools she works with and says the teachers "give me masses of delicious Thai food throughout the day". To get around she takes songtaews, or van and lorry taxis, a ferry, rides pillion on motorbikes, or is peddled in local versions of rickshaws. She now speaks Thai well enough to go into schools alone, and has a busy social life with local friends and other overseas volunteers.
But the professional frustrations are great. Many primary schools have 2,000 pupils, and classes of up to 50. "There are no art therapists, music therapists, occupational therapists or physiotherapists that come to work with the children, and the Buddhist religion sees disability as a form of punishment for sins in previous lives, so often this presents difficulties for the families of special needs children," says Emily.
Judith Davison, a special needs teacher from Merseyside, has been working for two years in the special education department of a college in north-east Thailand, a Rajabhat Institute, one of six in the country training students to become special needs teachers. Although meant to be an early intervention centre, it actually caters for children from two to seven years old with a very wide range of abilities. Classroom problems are also varied. For example, in a hot country with ceiling fans, "snap cards and dominoes can fill the room like confetti - with all the children out of their seats chasing after them".
It is also frustratin, says Judith, that many of the children are accompanied by a helper, often a grandmother, who will insist on doing everything for them. But low-cost resources prepared by previous VSO volunteers have proved useful, including an early reader scheme used by children with learning difficulties who find it almost impossible to learn all 44 characters in the Thai alphabet.
Theresa Casey, 33, a former adventure play worker from Edinburgh who is half-way through her two-year posting working with slum children and child labourers in the station area of Bangkok, finds the children she works with "lively and curious to learn and try out new activities", despite the fact many of them live in appalling conditions. She works with the Foundation for Child Development on play and creative work to support development in children from four to 14 years old, and says: "My Thai language skills are greatly enhanced by working in Thai all the time, in a community setting. But I have to be careful about the vocabulary I pick up from the children, which is colourful."
Richard O'Brien is also wrestling with the intricacies of learning Thai although, as a 37-year-old disabled by thalidomide, he faces many other difficulties in a country where the disability is unknown and has to be translated as: "My mother was given some bad medicine when she was pregnant and it meant my arms did not grow properly." He is supporting teachers in small village schools in the north-east of the country. "Apart from disabled beggars, disabled people seem to be invisible and encouraging disabled children and their parents and teachers that they should be going to school isn't so much a how-to type job as a hearts and minds type job."
Under new Thai legislation, if even only a handful of such children from an area can be registered at a local school, that school can start to receive special needs assistance. If the children are not registered, for all practical purposes they do not exist at all. VSO now considers Thailand to be making such steady progress in this area that it is planning an orderly five-year closure of its programme there in order to turn its attentions elsewhere. Many other countries throughout Asia, Africa and the Pacific are increasingly asking for teachers and health workers to help them provide it. Special needs volunteers are always in short supply and VSO is actively recruiting.
VSO AND SPECIAL NEEDS
Most VSO postings are for two years. Primary and special needs teachers are asked to have two years' experience. Ages of volunteers range from early 20s to late 60s. Most special needs postings are for jobs in the primary sector; a few are in the secondary sector.
Teachers with experience of children with moderate to severe learning difficulties would be considered for special needs postings, as would anyone with experience as a SENCO.
There are currently nearly 2,000 VSO volunteers worldwide; 15 to 20 of these are special needs placements, not all of them teachers.
For more information, contact VSO, tel: 020 8780 7500