Persistence is a time-honed quality for students like Bless Adriano, 22, whose college experience so far has been one big test.
It is not, however, a test of her intelligence. Academic pressure takes a backseat in the life of this Dean’s Lister. No, the test goes far beyond that.
For this third year student with a visual disability that has rendered her totally blind, college has so far been a test for the education system and its capacity to include students like her.
It has been failing.
Lack of inclusivity in higher education
Persistence is a time-honed skill that gets fine-tuned every time Adriano has to remind her professors she cannot see.
A Psychology student at Trinity University of Asia (TUA), Adriano recounts particular instances when she felt excluded after some professors would ‘forget’ about her visual disability. With one professor, she had to repeatedly clarify she could not write every time they had a quiz.
“Ang bilis ng kada dictation na ramdam po na hassle sa kanya every time I request her to repeat the question,” she says. In another instance, a professor had repeatedly forgotten he had agreed to give a special midterm exam. In the end, he merely asked her to answer five random questions.
Studying alongside sighted classmates has helped Adriano to bridge the accessibility gap in most of her classes where the learning materials are catered to those with sight. Adriano’s classmates would volunteer to write her answers during exams and hold study sessions to help her understand lessons in chemistry, human anatomy and more.
But as virtual learning comes for a country dead-set on continuing education amid a pandemic, she worries about the prospects of relying on online resources in the coming school year.
The lack of tactile study materials for most of her classes has made her rely on someone to hold her hand or to create improved materials so she could picture what was being described.
She cannot do these in virtual learning.
Armed with a 6-year-old phone and a laptop that has an outdated Windows 7 interface, she believes the coming school year could be even more difficult for her than usual.
“Kung dati po extra effort na talaga since ako lang po ang blind sa block namin, ngayon po, kakaibang effort ulit yung pag-iisip ng paraan kung papaano ako makakasabay sa kanila dahil nga po lahat ay mababago,” Adriano, who relies on her screen-reader to read online materials, says.
But she makes it clear: education has been inaccessible and exclusive even before the pandemic.
“Bago pa man po magkaroon nitong pandemic, ilang beses ko na rin po naisipang huminto eh. Lalo na po pag wala kaming mahanap na guide na sasama sa akin sa school or pag nagma-manifest po yung systemic lupus,” she says.
SPED educators’ woes
While special education (SPED) teachers hold up half of the sky in providing inclusive education, the other half has been falling with systemic funding and facility issues that leave students running for cover long before the pandemic.
The sudden, forceful shift to remote learning has compounded their problems.
In the Philippine National School for the Blind (PNSB), considered as “the country’s pioneer exponent in the education of visually-impaired Filipino children,” students and teachers make do with poor teaching technology and lack of appropriate equipment.
Ronald Manguiat of PNSB says they have asked the Department of Education (DepEd) to make their donations more appropriate for those with visual impairment. Through the years, they have received donations such as blackboards and printed materials with small fonts —materials that are far from “inclusive” for the blind, he says.Virtual learning may leave even more visually-impaired students behind if not supported with the right technology. Most of the classes in PNSB require teachers to teach with a hand-over-hand approach on tactile surfaces — an activity that cannot be replicated through online classes.
Manguiat also laments the DepEd’s decision to rely on their school for modules on teaching blind students. This has resulted in added workload for already overworked PNSB teachers.
“Nanghihingi sila ng sample ng module na gagamitin sa blind, eh diba dapat sa kanila nanggagaling yun? It should be opposite – dapat galing sa DepEd at ibababa sa schools. Dahil ang mga experts galing sakanila eh. Kaya nga sila nandoon sa higher position,” he says.
Students that heavily depend on face-to-face interactions for their development have also lost their precious classroom time due to the need for physical distancing. This is the case for students at Laro, Lapis, Libro, Inc. (Laro), a private SPED transition school where most students with additional needs (SWANs) have learning disabilities and are immunocompromised.
Leah Buenaventura of Laro says they chose to continue the school year out of a sense of responsibility for the students. She and her colleagues “voluntarily chose” to take pay cuts amid a heavier workload due to remote learning.
“There were families na sila na mismo nagri-reach out to us, because they needed so to say “help” on how to handle their children at home. […] That is what Laro is for – to really take hold of our vision and mission na we advocate for our students,” Buenaventura says.
Online classes would be difficult for students if not guided by a parent or relative — a privilege that is afforded only to families where one parent can stay at home.
The school, however, has created home-based programs where parents or guardians could teach their students based on their own schedule, says Buenaventura.
Inclusive ‘new normal’ of education
What used to be considered “accomodations” before the COVID-19 pandemic should be considered part of the new normal, says Cristina Aligada-Halal who has been teaching SPED for 16 years.
“At this point, we cannot not be inclusive. We don’t just think about the student with additional needs, or those with disabilities. We think of everyone. Those with access to the internet, access to gadgets. Now we have to be inclusive,” she says.
Persistence is not enough to give an overnight fix to an education system, especially to one where years-long exclusion of SWANs has rendered government policies indifferent to students’ different circumstances.
After teachers’ groups raised alarm bells in May over the Department of Education’s (DepED) ‘insubstantial’ plans to provide technology for distance learning, the department has conceded only 80% of last year’s students will return this year.
As of writing, a catastrophic 6 million students from last year failed to enroll.
Child advocacy group Save The Children Philippines found that COVID-19 restrictions have “affected children with disabilities and their families through the lack of access to education services, child development centers or supervised neighborhood programs.”
In these scenarios, perhaps mere persistence is no longer enough, especially when youth with disabilities continue to be one of the country’s most marginalized groups in education.
For Aligada-Halal, inclusive education is one that can —and should — be held up by both teachers and administrators.
Policies coming from the top should allow for more options in learning. As in Adriano’s case, default policies on examinations are just one of the first roadblocks for SWANs.
What Aligada-Halal believes should change is the people’s outlook towards inclusive education.
“[Inclusive education] is not supposed to cut corners. It makes things easier for Students with Additional Needs, but that does not mean there are less courses to learn, or that there are lower standards,” Aligada-Halal says.
SPED teachers’ years-long experience in keeping a pulse on their students’ specific needs can be a valuable model to other educators now entering the uncharted territory of remote learning.
“Students with Additional Needs learn differently and it is impossible to be successful in teaching them if you will stick to just one method or way of teaching,” Buenaventura says.
Adriano relayed her concerns to TUA in a survey form they released in June to gauge students’ preparedness for remote learning before classes begin August 24.
The university’s website currently shows that its learning cloud will “leave no student behind.”
“Hopefully, completely accessible and compatible ang interface ng learning cloud na gagamitin namin sa mga screen readers na ginagamit ko. Kasi napakalaking problema po ito pag nagkataon,” she says.
The pandemic has ushered in questions on how remote learning will radically change the face of education for better or for worse. Others have believed the compromise to be necessary, with even the president himself declaring it so during his fifth State of the Nation Address.
But for embattled SPED educators and students, the question has always been when they can be truly supported with the right facilities and learning equipment as promised in a truly inclusive education.
It is left unanswered to this day.