The overall objective of this study is to reexamine “best practices” in education for children with disabilities by explicating voices of teachers working at government (public) schools in Bhutan. The term “best practices” in education for children with disabilities fundamentally echoes the concepts of the Salamanca Statement of 1994, which states, “regular schools with this (an) inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system” (1994, Salamanca Statement, ix)” (Lee & Low, 2013; USAID, 2010). The Salamanca concept of inclusive education or mainstreaming children with disabilities has been hailed as “best practices” by many countries, and Bhutan is not an exception (Kurth, Lyon, & Shogren, 2015; Subba et al., 2015; Rose & Shevlin, 2017; Sakurai, 2019).
The government of Bhutan has been consolidating a platform of quality education for all children with disabilities almost in tandem with the period of EFA expansion for general education. From the early 2000s onward, the government increased the implementation of special education programs under an “integration policy”—a process to transfer students to a less segregated setting (MoE, Bhutan, 2012), and then from the 2010s, the government shifted gears towards “inclusive education,” “the process of valuing, accepting and supporting diversity in schools and ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to learn” (MoE, Bhutan, 2017). Likewise, the legal framework has shown promising development throughout the 2010s. In September 2010, the country signed the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and the National Policy for Person with Disabilities, which encompasses Salamanca concepts, was drafted in 2018. As a policy and legal framework, these “best practices” in inclusive education have been explicated nationwide in the country over the last decade (Sherab et al., 2015; GNHCS, Bhutan, 2018).
Pertaining to the “soft” aspects of inclusive education development, such as the attitudes towards disabilities, however, portrays a slightly different picture. For instance, religiously and traditionally rooted influence of prejudice towards disability still remains; in the household survey conducted by UNICEF and MoE Bhutan in 2016, 83% of the respondents answered “yes” when asked, “children’s disabilities are the result of past deeds” (UNICEF, Bhutan, 2017). This tradition of viewing the current situation as the reincarnation of the past is often described as Bhutan-unique (c.f. Schuelka, 2012; Sherab et al., 2015), and breaking the habit of reincarnation or not attributing the birth of a child with disabilities to karma has been encouraged through awareness-raising at inclusive schools (Sherab et al, 2015; MoE, 2017). At the same time, the household survey by UNICEF Bhutan (2017) indicates that respondents are getting more positive about inclusive learning environment; over 70% of the respondents agreed that they are positive about having children with disabilities in the same class. Similar positive results of peer acceptance that may prove dissemination of “best practices” concept in inclusive education are also referred to by Subba et al. (2015), who interviewed principals. But what are the hindrances of inclusive education at school? In an attempt to gauge recent views by teachers on children with disabilities, this study employs both teacher questionnaires and interviews with the principals of the participating schools and compares the results in 2012 and 2019.
More concretely, this study asks teachers the following questions:
(1) What are the obstacles for children with disabilities to learn at school? Do the students with disabilities have any difficulty in keeping good friendship?
(2) How do teachers conceive “best practices” of inclusive orientation or mainstreaming children with disabilities would contribute to society?
(3) What is the ideal environment of ‘inclusiveness’ for children with disabilities? Where should children with disabilities learn?
With support from ECCD & SEN Division, Ministry of Education, Bhutan, the researcher visited West Bhutan cities and conducted the same questionnaire surveys and interviews at the same educational institutions (five schools and two NGOs) both in 2012 and 2019. A total of 51 (in 2012) and 172 (in 2019) questionnaires were administered to the teachers vis-à-vis perceptions of inclusive education. The study will explore perceptions through teacher perspectives because not only teachers’ attitudes toward inclusion but also their views about managing responsibilities in handling students with disabilities affects all students (Avramidis & Norwich, 2002). In the interview conducted in 2019 with school principals and representatives of NGOs, the researcher also inquired how they observe the societal changes that might affect inclusive education in the country.
Preliminary findings indicated that in both 2012 and 2019, the percentages of those familiar with the “Salamanca Statement” was limited; yet the concept of inclusive education seemed to keep disseminating throughout this time. Second, in the 2019 survey, the number of respondents who considered physical barriers “lack of appropriate learning materials for children with disabilities” as the hindrance of children with disabilities to learn at school, reduced. Third, with the dissemination of “best practices” in inclusive education, while the children with mild and moderate disabilities have been more encouraged to be enrolled in general classes, children with severe disabilities have been recommended to study in special education classes.
The issue of children with disabilities is a theme often shared in common beyond national borders. By pursuing and disclosing local interviews, conventions, practices, history, and the school culture surrounding inclusive education in Bhutan, this study delineates the dynamics of application to “best practices” in inclusive education that have been affected by cultural traditions and realistic accommodation when considering social inclusiveness. Careful observations on how inclusive education will be disseminated in Bhutan and beyond is necessary to understand how different cultural contexts encompass “best practices” to maintain equity and social justice of the society. The study will benefit educators, researchers, and policy makers involved in education as a whole and to the field of comparative and international education to reexamine global education trends.