Making room for all

SEAN O’CONNOR reviews Learners with Special Needs by Jennifer Gous and Lungelwa Mfazwe (Heinemann, R 36,50)

SOUTH Africans continue to feel the effects of an inefficient, discriminatory system that “catered” to learners with special educational needs (LSEN—a horrible acronym) under the former government. Many of us don’t have an adequate grasp of what the term “special needs” means, nor do we always know how to interact positively with people with disabilities or learners with special needs.

The system of separate “special needs” classes, hitherto unevenly applied in the old race-based system, left thousands of learners languishing with undiagnosed and unaddressed problems.
For learners who “benefitted” directly, namely those in certain privileged state schools, the system supposedly had good intentions. The “catering” these learners received took the form of “pull-out” classes, separated from the schooling mainstream. Yet now, this “catering” for “others” is slowly being replaced with “home cooking” for “all”.

The isolated small group was perceived as the environment where effective educational intervention could take place. This didn’t always happen. In many cases, the overriding result of those good intentions was to mystify, limit, reject, stereotype and deny equal opportunities to a massive range of differently-abled people.

Worldwide, parents, educators and policymakers have urged that learners with special educational needs be included in the mainstream, “unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise”, according to the United Nations’s Salamanca Statement of 1994. Not only should these learners be included, but they should be supported, encouraged and respected. This is government policy. Our Constitution forbids discrimination on the grounds of disability. We are beginning to understand that not only does inclusion make sense, but it is also just. Inclusion is a challenge, but one we are privileged to have. We must all learn, together, and from each other. But where do we start?

Many books have been written about LSEN. Most of these have addressed the inclusion issue. These books have often been fine, well-researched, pro-active publications. None, however, are quite as handy and to the point as this sleek new manual.

Learners with Special Needs is easy to read yet dense with information, and covers a vast range of topics. The authors tell it plain and straight. Their motive is to introduce readers to the knowledge, skills and values that teachers need in order to be more thoughtful about teaching learners with special needs (or “barriers to learning”.) No prizes then, for guessing that this book speaks the language of outcomes-based education (OBE). Yet the way it does so is a real treat. The book is dynamic in nature and has an easy, honest tone. It is presented very effectively, and the chapter headings, outcomes and reader activities are all very clear.

It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most heartening things about new policy regarding LSEN is that it dovetails with OBE. One way in which all learners are accommodated in the classroom—a classroom where all can succeed—is through the implementation of OBE. OBE should and can be adaptable to the needs of all learners. The book mixes description with a wealth of revealing case studies, questions and suggestions. One tip offered by the authors is worth sharing: “Breaking down a lesson into steps can go a long way towards serving the needs of all the children in the class.” Useful chapters on teaching, family and classroom strategies, plus a list of services, make this an extremely practical book.

Also included are chapters on intellectual disabilities, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, foetal alcohol syndrome, autism, chronic illnesses as well as visual, auditory and emotional or behavioural problems. Most chapters are only a few pages in length, and although this makes them introductory rather than expansive, all contain a sufficiency of pertinent and thought-provoking material.

The book is thus an excellent introductory resource. Teachers, parents and others trying to get to grips with the challenges posed by LSEN would do well to start here. The book demystifies many issues and conditions, and stimulates thoughtful alternatives. If read as widely as it deserves to be, this book could make a small contribution towards improving the lives of many teachers, learners, classmates and parents in our country.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, April 10, 2000.

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