IATEFL’s Associates Coordinator Sara Hannam brings news from the Teachers’ Associations around the world.
Focus on teaching students with special needs: making inclusive ELT a reality.
I was asked at Associates’ Day to include a focus on teaching students with special needs (SEN) in my page here in Voices. I looked around to find a TA in our network who are involved in this area and are active in arranging a focus on SEN students and English teaching in their conference, through their publications, or through other events. I didn’t have much success. I would just like to say that I am sorry if I have missed anyone who is working on this – if there is anybody out there, please come forward so I can tell everyone about your work in my next column. I don’t want to suggest that great work is not going on – it might simply be that I am unaware of it. But the lack of response led me to the conclusion that this is an underdeveloped area, both in terms of awareness of how to understand the needs SEN students might have and also in terms of how to teach English to such students. In general, there is not much of a focus in the ELT world, not in the Associates page of Voices, nor in the rest of the IATEFL publications, nor at the IATEFL Annual conference. In TA conferences across the world, I have only encountered a handful of individual teachers working on this issue.
So I decided to use this opportunity to interview Claire Ozel from Turkey who is an expert in this area so that hopefully more TAs in the IATEFL associates’ network and beyond will start thinking about how to use the opportunity to be more active in promoting the needs and rights of SEN students and teachers who teach English to SEN students. So this column is not so much reporting TA news from around the world, as much as encouraging all TAs, and IATEFL, to start taking this issue seriously and getting it on the agenda.
Please contact me if you have ideas of how we can join Claire in the great work she has been doing and how we, as TAs, can get more involved.
Claire can you tell us something about yourself and how you became involved in teaching SEN students?
A long and at times lonely journey brought me to learn how to question assumptions and know that people seen as ‘unable’ might “be able to…” once they gain confidence. When I first came to live in Turkey 15 years ago, very few disabled people were seen on the streets, those who were being pitied or patronised. Having previously done activities with disabled people in Britain, I knew that things could be different. In 12 years of teaching English, mainly at the Middle East Technical University (METU, Ankara, Turkey), I met numerous students, teachers and managers, whose attitudes to disability issues repeatedly challenged my assumptions of how disabled students could learn English. Colleagues at METU encouraged me to make a first presentation, then set up a SIG, after which the problem was too clear to be ignored.
How do you decide when a student is disabled?
Disabled people are not just those whose differences are visible, but many more with unseen, unmentioned differences (e.g. living with pain) that impair performance and disadvantage them in a world designed for ‘the normal’. For some, psychological consequences of exclusion can be more disempowering than the medical impairment. The UN estimates one in ten people to be disabled . “Numbers and statistics?”, the first question that administrators ask ‘to justify spending’, is not a straight-forward issue. The number of students known to be disabled depends on several factors: Firstly who is being counted: if only those who are totally blind or deaf or use a wheelchair, under 0.1% of a university’s population will be identified; but when including anyone who has a condition that may at some time cause disadvantage, this number could increase over ten fold. However, this is speculation, because it is impossible to count people who have no reason to disclose/declare a disability. The second factor is provision of support – until a range of alternatives are provided, most will not disclose, remaining silent and muddling on, pretending to ‘be normal’, rather than attracting attention that could backfire. Thirdly, until society provides opportunities for children with disabilities, few get equal access to education. These three factors can account for the 100-fold difference (in 2007) between Turkish universities (those who had started identifying disabled students) with around 0.1% of total students, and at Dutch universities where ‘between 11 and 15%’ of students disclosed a condition.
What approaches do you take to teaching SEN students? Can you tell us something about the awareness raising and research work you also do outside the classroom?
When I started in 1996, I followed my intuition. Direct asking often generated confused statements. I listened to individual experiences of lone students, aware they might not know their feelings or how to express them: together we extrapolated needs and tested possible solutions. We watched out for feelings and read body language. Through the Internet I contacted people worldwide; their experiences developed my vision, allowing us to progress beyond superficial short term responses, towards deeper solutions.
Two key concepts in my progression were: Models of Disability, introduced to me during a British Council study visit (2004). Understanding different attitudes to disability, we can better argue for seemingly ruthless and unkind approaches, in order to raise standards and expectations. When I heard of Non-Violent Communication , I realised it described the essence of my approach, focusing on specific needs and giving responsibility. The combination of the two brings a clearer mind; I now spend my energy more effectively with better outcomes.
At METU we have developed interactive disability awareness training which allows each participant to work on personal beliefs; as group members challenge assumptions all grow in understanding and expression. Since 2003, new METU English teachers have had a Disability Awareness session included in their training: they know ‘what to do if…’
Why do you think there is so little focus on SEN students in ELT?
Disability is a taboo subject, difficult to talk about, swept under the carpet and ignored as much as possible, or tinkered with at arms’ length, with token solutions that don’t go to the root of the problems – because few (whether disabled or non-disabled) know how to discuss these matters, having neither the language nor the clarity of understanding to broach the subject.
Taboo topics often grow distorted into myths like “Blind people are….!”. These shadows of reality generate emotional responses (fear of failure, emotional over-protectiveness, etc.) reflected in the teacher’s psychology. Even short disability awareness training reduces insecurity and develops a balance between rationality and care.
What do you think IATEFL and the Teachers’ Associations who are associated to IATEFL from across the world could do?
Teachers need guidance to be ready to teach a disabled student. While general disability awareness can be given in advance, specific guidance can only be provided once student and teacher discuss specific needs.
By understanding clearly different responsibilities of stakeholders in ELT (learner, teacher, language school, class mates…), extra work required to adapt a non-inclusive system (designed for standard individuals, without thought for those with different needs) can be shared, all benefiting from the experience. Three primary points are: The institution is responsible for providing access and reasonable alternatives. A disabled student chooses whether or not to disclose their special need; those who do are offered alternative provision. The student is fully involved and expected to succeed; passive receivers of pity progress little. Diplomas represent a level of knowledge and ability, and should be earned. If suitable assessment cannot be arranged, an equivalent task is evaluated: ‘exemption’ only degrades the value of the qualification.
While local support is important, a centralised service online could answer many initial questions. An umbrella organisation like IATEFL could play a key role, referring teachers to the service which will develop according to needs, growing from teacher feedback and requests for advice into comprehensive guidelines and standards. Additionally the idea of setting up a Special Interest Group (SIG) within a local TA could be one that will help to raise awareness of the importance of this issue. In June of this year, we established a website – http://www.accessenglish.org – with Fulbright funding to collect ideas that can reduce barriers to learning English, for learners with different needs. With IATEFL cooperation, could this become the centralized service provider? Every reality starts with a dream.
This interview took place on 21 August 2008. Claire Ozel is Disability Support Coordinator at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey (www.engelsiz.metu.edu.tr)