RANGOON — Near the downtown area of Burma’s commercial capital, 22-year-old Thu Ta Tun works as a Shiatsu massage therapist. She is deaf, and massage was one of the few trades she could pursue with her limited education. “I didn’t go to school until I was 11 years old,” she says through sign language.
She is not alone in Burma, where more than 60 percent of deaf people never go to school, according to a national survey conducted by the government.
After decades of neglect to the education system, Burma has a low overall attendance rate, with about 10 percent of all school-aged children never starting school, according to the United Nations. But the figures for children with disabilities are significantly worse: The government survey showed that 50 percent of all people with disabilities, including physical and intellectual disabilities, had never attended school, largely because they were denied entrance at the government’s mainstream public schools. The high school graduation rate for people with disabilities was just 2 percent.
Outside mainstream schools, disabled students have few options, with just 15 special education schools in the entire country for the deaf, blind, physically disabled and intellectually disabled, including those with autism or mental retardation. There are also seven vocational training schools for people with physical disabilities.
Some of these special education schools are run by the government, but the majority were established by NGOs. About half of them are in Rangoon, and almost all the rest are in other urban centers, making it nearly impossible for disabled students in rural areas to pursue an education.
J Nyi Nyi, a Rangoon resident, says his 17-year-old son suffers from autism and attends the only government-run school in the country for intellectually disabled children. He finds the ratio of students to teachers worrisome.
“They try so hard, but they can’t look after all the children,” he says of the teachers in his son’s class. “There are 35 children and only two teachers. The numbers are so different.”
Asked if the school was a good option, he laughs and says, “It’s the only one.”
Burma’s National Disability Survey from 2010, a joint effort between the government and the Leprosy Mission International charity, indicates that about 1.2 million people in Burma live with a disability, and about 460,000 of them are school-aged children. But according to figures last year from the Ministry of Education, only about 2,250 students with disabilities were enrolled at the government’s mainstreams schools or its special schools for the blind and deaf.
In Burma, people with disabilities often lead difficult lives. They are more likely than non-disabled people to be poor, unemployed and landless, with 85 percent reporting unemployment in the national survey. More than three-quarters reported no access to public information, including event postings, disaster warnings and public health messages, while less than a quarter had ever heard of government services to help disabled people.
At the village level, if a child is blind, deaf or intellectually disabled, mainstream public schools will not allow him or her to enroll, says Sai Kyi Zin Soe, who advocates on behalf of disabled students at ActionAid, an international anti-poverty NGO. In some cases, schools reject even children with physical disabilities. “It’s the decision of the headmaster,” he says. “When we do manage to convince the headmaster, they have trouble accommodating most children who are blind, deaf or have intellectual disabilities.”
As an example, he recalled a young girl who suffered from polio in Dala Township, across the river from Rangoon. ActionAid says it convinced the principal of a primary school there to accept the girl, and then built ramps for her wheelchair and adjusted the toilets so she could use them. But at the end of fourth grade, she ran into a problem: The fifth grade classroom was located on the second floor, and the principal refused to move it downstairs.
“She dropped out,” Sai Kyi Zin Soe says, adding that the principal’s decision was based on a desire to promote education for the greater student population. In Burma, many students stop attending classes after primary school, and the second-floor classroom was intended to promote a sense of prestige for other students who continued on to secondary school.
In addition to physical infrastructure problems, it can be a challenge convincing students to attend class if they have a disability, says Myat Thu Winn, president of the Shwe Minn Tha Foundation, a Burma-based nonprofit that provides education grants and other assistance for disabled students.
“We have to persuade them, the disabled children, because most of us dare not go into the community, most of us dare not go to school,” says the activist, a Rangoon native with cerebral palsy. “Parents are also very important. Families of disabled people are very poor, so most families think we have no need to go to school. We are just a burden for them. It’s very delicate to persuade the family members that their disabled child should go to school.”
“And how will they go to school regularly, every day?” he adds. “If their residence is far away, the road is not accessible for us. There are so many problems.”
The government has more than 41,000 basic education schools around the country, but it runs only four of the 15 special education schools for people with disabilities and only three of the seven special vocational training schools, according to ActionAid. Space is also limited, with the government school for intellectual disabilities only able to accept about 300 students per year.
School for the Deaf
Speech, lip reading, finger spelling and sign language are all on the curriculum at the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf in Rangoon, one of two schools for the deaf in the entire country.
The private boarding school cares for 385 students, with different levels of kindergarten classrooms to accommodate students who do not begin their education until up to age 12. Students pay 10,000 kyats (US$10) monthly for boarding and meals, and 1,000 kyats to attend classes, which follow the same syllabus as the government’s mainstream schools.
Naw Hsar Phaw, 48, teaches sewing as part of a vocational training program. Originally from Irrawaddy Division, she says her hometown has 10 deaf children, some of whom she has brought to Rangoon for schooling. “Normal schools in my village won’t accept them,” she says with sign language. “Three of the 10 children have never attended any school.”
In addition to vocational training in sewing and handicrafts, students can learn massage therapy. The principal, Nyunt Nyunt Thein, plans to expand training options in the future, perhaps by opening a floral service or a snack shop. “They are also very strong in computer and math. And I’m thinking of a hair salon, too, because they can see very well. So many options,” she says.
She adds that most of the students rarely leave the school compound, with safety concerns or fears of discrimination in the city. After Grade 6, they go to a mainstream school down the street.
Earlier this year the principal attended an education conference in Hong Kong that offered some inspiration. “I saw there were many deaf colleges and deaf universities outside Myanmar [Burma]. I didn’t know before,” she says. “Now I’m encouraging them to go. Starting next year I will increase the class levels at our school, to 10th Standard. I want to teach my children English so they can apply for universities outside.”
There is debate not only in Burma, but around the world, on the best way to educate students with disabilities. With special education, disabled children can attend separate schools that cater to their needs. Another option is inclusive education, whereby mainstream schools adapt the physical infrastructure and train teachers with a capacity to assist them.
Proponents of special education say children with disabilities are at risk of being bullied in mainstream schools, and that inclusive education would not offer the necessary specialized support. Others say inclusive education can help overcome discriminatory attitudes and increase acceptance of diversity, while being a more financially viable option in some poorer countries.
With a tight education budget, the Burma government lacks the resources to establish a much larger network of special education schools and has turned to the idea of inclusive education, aiming to build up the capacity in existing schools so children with special needs can access education in their own villages. This would be a major task, as about 70 percent of the country’s 60 million or so population lives in a rural area.
“To enable every citizen to complete basic education, the Inclusive Education Program was initiated,” the Ministry of Education wrote in its “Education for All” report last year. “Children with mental/physical handicaps, those being deficient in sight and hearing, those having difficulty to attend school, those who are members of socially excluded families, and those who dropped out before completion of primary education are accepted in basic education schools.”
In some cases, disabled students are welcomed. May Zin Aung, 25, attended mainstream schools in Irrawaddy Division as a child. “I’ve been missing both arms since I was born,” says the Rangoon-based Web designer, picking up a cup of coffee with her foot before taking a sip. “I went to a normal school.”
As part of education reform, the government is currently undertaking a two-year review of the public school system, and officials involved say inclusive education is being discussed.
But critics say much work remains.
“Education Ministry officials say they are implementing inclusive education. But whenever I meet with them, I tell them that this is only so-called inclusive education,” says Myat Thu Winn of the Shwe Minn Tha Foundation.
“The policy says we have the right to go to school, but at the practical level, they never try to accommodate us. For example, it could be very difficult for a disabled child to attend school because of problems with how the toilet was built. If they cannot solve this toilet problem, the child cannot go to school. In this way, we have so many challenges to overcome.”
Globally, an estimated 70 percent of children with disabilities can attend regular schools, so long as the school environment is designed for accessibility and the institution is willing to accommodate them, according to Unicef, the UN agency for children.
Changing the Law
Activists in Burma are now drafting a new law for people with disabilities that they hope will ensure that children with special needs have the right to attend mainstream schools.
Another decades-old law for people with disabilities is currently on the books. “But that law was especially for ex-army members,” says Myat Thu Winn, giving the example of soldiers who were injured during combat. “It wasn’t for local disabled people. But this new draft law is not only for the military—it would cover the entire country.”
He says disabled persons organizations have finished a draft and are negotiating with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement before sending it to Parliament.
Yu Yu Swe, assistant director of the ministry’s Department of Social Welfare, confirms that negotiations are under way. “We have to expand IE [inclusive education],” she says. “We are drafting the PwD’s [persons with disabilities] rights law, and after enacting that law we will implement it.”
In addition to calling for inclusive education, the draft law could help establish the overall rights of disabled people, prevent job discrimination and fight against stigma in local communities.
“The traditional belief is that autism is a psychological problem,” says Dr. Myint Lwin, chairman of the Myanmar Autism Association, who says intellectual disabilities are often the most misunderstood. “They do not value autistic children, they don’t realize that we can teach autistic children and that they can live as normal people.”
If passed, the draft law could be crucial for parents like J Nyi Nyi, whose autistic son will soon be an adult. The government’s school for the intellectually disabled only accepts students until the age of 18, and he says no vocational training is provided.
“My son is now 17 years old,” he says, adding that job prospects are slim. “He can’t speak properly. He can’t dress himself. He can’t clean himself. He’s very sensitive.
“Next year he is 18. I’m so worried for that.”