[StudentCorner] Education for the disabled
In 1935, Korea set up its first special school, aimed at providing the visually impaired with an education opportunity. This may have been a big step for us Koreans. Yet unfortunately, most developed nations in a couple decades were due for a shocking consensus: “Special schools do more harm than good.” Special schools, they agree, only served to segregate the disabled children from the outside society, severing their chances of assimilating into adulthood.
So came the solution in 1973, first in West Germany – “integrated education.” Germany integrated all students, disabled or not, into regular schools in hopes of fostering social skills and exposure to diversity. Although this system requires specialized governmental support to ensure that all can keep up with the curriculum, it has proven to yield better results than those specialized education did.
Currently, integrated education exists in varying degrees all throughout the world, most prominently in the U.S., and even in Korea, in its flimsiest form – only written in the books and hardly ever functional in practice for nearly two decades.
According to Dr. Won Sae-joo, the chief doctor of the clinic, Korea’s strictly score-based school culture presents a massive challenge. “A degree of understanding and sacrifice is quintessential in bringing disabled students and normal ones in the same school. However, neither seems likely to happen in a system so focused on rankings and scores for college admission,” he said.
On the other hand, Kim Byung-ha and Cho Won-il, special education researchers, pointed to a brighter side in their professional literature published in 2005: “Thanks to the governmental efforts, there’s been an exponential increase in the number of special classes established in regular schools since 1975. From 210 classes in 1975 to over 4400 in 2005,” said the two researchers said in their joint research. However, they were also quick to emphasize that despite this increased support, the students, unfortunately, remained bodily and mentally segregated due to lack of contact between the special and regular classes. “Essentially, underneath the seemingly impressive numbers, there is no real integrated education in practice anywhere in Korea,” they grimly noted.
According to a special education instructor working in an elementary school in Seoul, most teachers have poorly informed attitudes about integrated education. “A homeroom teacher would push an autistic child into the special classroom every morning just to get him out of the way,” the instructor said, frustrated. The teacher justified that the autistic child is disrupting the class and it’s unfair for other students. “What is the point of sending an autistic kid to a regular school if he’s put in full-time special classes every day?”
In the absence of systematic, institutionalized aid, most disabled students have been forced to rely on private efforts to secure their rights to integrated classrooms. According to Dr. Won, mothers of disabled children typically turn to online communities like Daum and Naver cafes for help. “If only there were effective organizations that mobilize resources, they would see quicker and greater results,” the doctor said, exemplifying the U.S., which operates a myriad of organizations dedicated to securing legal educational rights of the disabled. “Some are region-based, some age-based, some federal, and some for aiding parents. Such an intricate system serves to close the dichotomy between the federal government-funded institutions and the private efforts of psychologists –something sorely needed in Korea,” said the doctor. The implications are clear: it is impossible to go about fixing an entire school culture anytime soon, but what we can aim for is to establish social organizations that function in various levels to inform and assist the students with special needs in getting their educational chances secured.
Kim Hwa-soo is the 12th grader at Emma Willard, an all-girls private boarding high school in New York.