Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

5Sep/080

‘Children need to be brought in for early detection’

You have worked in the area of children with mental disabilities for decades. How do you see the overall state now?

Previously, there were huge stigmas attached to children with disabilities. Parents felt socially ostracised, and, hence, were reluctant to disclose the child’s problems in public. A major part of my life was spent on campaigns to increase social awareness amongst parents, families and the community. A lot of time we had to also spell out the differences between mental illness, which is a psychiatric problem; and mental retardation, which is a developmental problem where early identification and intervention can go a long way in ensuring optimum educational skills and quality of survival.

What are some of the achievements that Bangladesh has made in provision of care services and research for these children?

Bangladesh today has a National Policy on Disability 1995 passed by the cabinet; and a Disability Welfare Act 200, passed by parliament. Another Human Rights Law on Disability, in tune with the UN Human Rights Convention, has been drafted. These have legal implications and also provide children with disabilities, parents and the community ammunition to challenge their exclusion from normal life, ie, schools, sports, extra curricular activities etc.

I also started the Bachelors and Masters in Special Education degree courses within the Institute of Education (IER) of Dhaka University; also in the Institute of Special Education of the Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation affiliated with the National University.

Every year special teachers are graduating from these institutes of whom many are being employed or have started their own special schools.

Given the burden of the problem, these services are nominal. All schools need to address the special needs to children in every class, as a normal routine procedure, with no stigmatisation.

What do you feel the challenges are in working in this area? Is there appropriate support available?

The challenges are manifold. Brain development is occurring at a rapid pace in the first three years. Therefore, it is already too late to identify children at school entry. That is why the primary health care sector needs to be brought in for early detection of children with impairments and disabilities. The second challenge is to provide special education needs to all children. These vary from child to child. For example, one child might benefit from a hearing aid, another from glasses, and another by being given extra time to complete class work.

Do you feel the government should put more focus in this area? If so, what role could the government could play in improving this state?

Only about 50 per cent children are able to complete primary school today, according to the Education Watch Report. So, do we think all the rest have special needs. In a way I feel that they do; or that the schools are only catering for the top 20 per cent students. All children need to be assessed in every subject and their strengths and weaknesses should be determined, so that the latter can be helped. Special needs should a subject which all school teachers must be competent in, at least the basics.

What specific areas of mental disability require further focus according to you?

There is a growing concern about disorders affecting communication and socialisation, specially childhood autism. These children need very specific intervention programmes in very controlled environments, with a one-on-one teaching; be it the parent, teacher or any other person. We need to have a country-wide epidemiological survey to determine the burden of the problems, which should include determination of the full range of special needs and developmental disabilities. The government of Bangladesh should initiate this. We have the technology to conduct such a survey. Only then resource allocation on a national scale can be made.

How did you begin your journey in this field?

This story dates back to partition or way back. But, it became more meaningful when I decided to get a Bachelor’s degree in education, and then a Master’s in the same vocation, which I then followed with a master’s in psychology. Immediately after I completed I was offered a post at the University of Dhaka. We lived in Narayanganj at that point and I would commute 25 miles each day to drop the children to school and then go to university.

That phase was also a decade for changes. While there was a visible change in the political climate, the need for focus on psychology was becoming slowly visible. But, then again, the mentally disabled were not really brought out into the open.

Often I would visit the psychiatry ward of Dhaka Medical College Hospital where children with handicaps were treated, but with little knowledge. It was at that time that many parents approached me and I truly wanted to help, but I also needed the proper training.

So, after victory, I went to Atlanta to obtain a doctorate. After coming back, I started talking to parents whose children had disabilities but there was no standardised test. Sometimes, you could not even tell whether a child was disabled and parents would not know until very late. My greatest challenge was to standardise a test for screening but it was also a difficult task.

You did introduce a standard test for screening?

It was a lot of hard work and miles of walking from one area to other. But I was full of zeal and determination and nothing could stop me. With financial support from Colombia University, in around 1987 we conducted a door-to-door testing and covered slums in Dhaka, adjoining areas of Elephant road, Dhamrai, Barisal, Kurigram, Rangpur and Chittagong. This consisted to of mostly children aged 3 to 9 years. Everyday, we would test 20 children which was based on performance, verbal and non-verbal testing.

By then you had also started the first school for mentally disabled children.

Yes, I had organised a parent’s movement – gathering parent’s whose children had disabilities. I had started talking to these children and at the same time designed different tools for IQ, psychosocial stimulation. And in a small bamboo hut on the corner of Willes Little Flower School, my first school for these children started. At the same time, I was keeping international contacts, meeting other centres across India and other parts of the world and work on creating similar facilities in Bangladesh.

How did Protibondhi Foundation come about?

Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation, also known as Kallyani was formed with twelve of my students.

Between developing distance training packages and conducting centre-based and distance training, I also introduced the department of Special Education, at my alma mater Dhaka University.

You were also the one to have introduced inclusive education. Tell us about that.

The importance and rights of every child to inclusive education was based on the established Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990), the convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Disabled Persons (1993).

Inclusive education is yet to be a prevalent concept in Bangladesh but we are working tirelessly. The recognition for schooling for children with special need within regular education system or inclusive education means that teacher in regular schools need to be prepared for this challenge of handling children with special needs.

Most often, teachers in school do not have the appropriate knowledge or expertise to be able to teach these children. We started these trainings and are still advocating this in our school, whereby children with disabilities are mainstreamed into schools.

Tell us about your new school for the mentally disabled children.

The new school is a second school of the Prantibondhi Foundation. It’s titled Bangladesh Protibondhi Punarbasan Institute located at Mirpur. The government allocated some land for this school and we are now starting an all service centre – where screening, research, training of teachers and schooling will be available.

We hope we can move forward and reach out more children and be able to provide them the much needed services.

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