Integration is a philosophy in itself. If you ask a number of people how they would explain this concept, you may get as many different answers as the number of people you ask and, when pinning down the question to education, the usual answer will be: "The system in which handicapped children attend normal schools.".
Jan Veneman, former board member of the Aruban foundation of the visually handicapped, FAVI, once put it quite differently when he was interviewed by a local magazine.
"Look," he said, "When a kid has no shoes to wear, he won't go to school. so what do we, charitably minded people do? We raise some money from a charity fund, to buy him a pair of shoes, so he can go to school. "
The interviewers nodded, agreeing that that was precisely the right thing to do.
"Well," said our former board member, a psychotherapist, "I tell you that's utterly wrong! What we ought to do is go to this kid and his mother and father and tell them that he does not have to be ashamed because he has no shoes; that he has just as much human value as all the other kids in school, that his bare feet don't make any difference at all! And we have to go to that school and tell the teachers and the other kids, that this kid, who is going to come to school bare-footed is just as respectable a person as they all are. That's integration!"
We understand what he meant, though the example is rather ambiguous because what Jan really did was use sophistry to make his point thereby taking the risk of absurd conclusions while ignoring the social injustice in our societies. The magazine editor thought he was crazy. What he really meant to say in an extreme way was that distinction should never be a reason for rejection or shame. That's integration as it should be: the acceptance of each other as equals in human value, in spite of all the differences. It is evident that we are still far away from the general acceptance of these basic concepts.
In our educational systems, the lack of integration in general is clearly demonstrated by the existence of involuntary class education. Some schools, willingly or unwillingly become elite schools while others, wilfully become drop-out schools. Seperate churches have their own seperate schools and some of them still segregate even in our times boys from girls.
In other words, if we are speaking of normal education we are referring to segregated education, to the extent, that in some rich countries, there are special schools for gifted children. In that system, that thrives on segregation we, the agencies for the visually handicapped try to promote integration of blind and partially sighted children. Is it really so strange then, that we have to cope with a lot of opposition?
In Aruba, fortunately, we did not have to cope with opposition from within, like in other countries with established residential schools for the blind that have a strong tendency to fight for their existence thereby using fake arguments that are easily refutable by the practical results. It is simply not reasonable to point one's finger proudly at the successful blind lawyer or businessman as proof of the superiority of one form of education over the other. Success in life (whatever that may mean) is a matter of individual aspirations which very often achieve their goal in spite of all adverse circumstances.
In Aruba, there was no residential school to start with; if we had wanted to, we could, of course, have raised the necessary funds to establish one, but that would have required a much higher investment and operating-costs than our present programme. That is one argument in favour of integrated education, although we reject the idea that human needs be subordinate to financial considerations. However, when it comes to convincing the authorities to subsidize one form of education or the other, the financial implications may well be decisive.
There is an easy way to protect oneself against being blamed for failures and ensure oneself of receiving praise for success. Failures can always be attributed to the flaws in the system and success to one's personal involvement. Truth however is like a rose: it's beautiful but thorny! There is no system, however ideal it may be, that will ensure success and no personal involvement without failures. The educational systems around the world are far from ideal and personal involvement of teachers leaves a lot to be desired. Aruba is no ezxeption to that rule. We are stuck with the Dutch system, that in the Netherlands itself is subject to severe criticism. Changing it to Aruban needs and standards seems, as yet, well-nigh impossible if only for economical reasons. The educational language is Dutch, while the mother-tongue of the children is Papiamento -- a creolized language with a vocabulary based mainly on Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. (In the mean time, Papiamento,has been introduced in the lower grades of basic education.)
Kindergarden and primary education is fully subsidized by the government irrespective of public or private education on condition that private education follows government standards of curriculum and minimum number of pupils. Secondary education is also subsidized except for study material such as books.
When, in the early 80's, the FAVI approached the local association of school-teachers, one of the first, inofficial reactions was:"Haven't we got enough problems as it is?" But after having listened to an extensive explanation of our ideas and ideals, the then president of the association, Miss Madonna Stephens openly declared that our integration programme was not only a challenge with regard to visually handicapped children, but to all and to the system as a whole which could only benefit from it. Because if teachers are prepared to dedicate extra attention to a visually handicapped child, they will do the same for any other child with special problems, and if an agency like the FAVI was capable of offering the extra support and resources needed to make it work, so could other institutions for children with other problems, which would reduce the need for special schools and enhance education in general.
That was precisely what we had been saying from the very beginning but what had not been fully understood was the fact that integration will certainly not work without an expert support team of at least an itinerant teacher/teacher consultant and social work co-ordinator of which the number depends on the case load. A rehabilitation worker is also indispensable in the support group, though, again, depending on the case load, he or she does not have to play a full-time role in it. It is absolute nonsense to have one or two teachers act as itinerant teachers as a side-job or let them work on their own from some government department. After all, it is not just the child that has to be given special attention; it is the regular class-room teacher who needs a lot of guidance and the child's parents.
In practice, the problems are manifold. But aren't they also in a residential school setting? Due to our limited resources our itinerant teachers , same as the rest of our staff and board members, have to be jacks of all trades. If we use the term itinerant teacher we are really, euphemistically referring to two ladies, Philomena Wong ( Philo) and Sonia Smith, who are indeed working as itinerant teachers and at the same time as teacher consultants, parent consultants, and resource developers. Most of the children and youngsters are not blind but partially sighted though in two cases, the sight impairement is such, that a CCTV (TV-magnifier) is a final solution. The FAVI has three different brands available, while there are three more in the island in private homes. Nevertheless, one of the teenagers who is learning braille still uses a FAVI CCTV at school. Most of the children are being helped however with enlarged photocopies of their learning material. That works fine, but it is a lot of boring work for the FAVI staff the more so, as we ourselves have no photocopy machine available that can produce trhe enlarged copies, so that it has to be done outside at a fairly high cost. (By now, those circumstances have changed to the better.)
The degree of cooperation of head masters (mistresses) and regular class-room teachers ranges from blunt refusal, to excellent involvement. There is no law to enforce integration of handicapped children in the regular school system. As a matter of fact there isn't a compulsory education act as yet in Aruba, but school attendance in Aruba is nevertheless almost a hundred percent and total illiteracy only occurs amongst elderly people and foreign immigrants. But if we had the law on our side to enforce a child's entry into a specific school, we doubt that we would be able to solve such rejection problems in a different way then the solution we found for one such case.
Here the child had been admitted to the school and both the head-master and the class-room teacher had been informed of the problems they would encounter and of the assistence they would receive from the FAVI and had agreed to co-operate. One week into the school-year, however it became quickly evident that the teacher concerned for one reason or the other started to use our partially sighted little client as a scape-goat for her own failure. (Neither she, nor her head-master would of course underwrite this conclusion!). The situation rapidly deteriorated and for the child's sake it was decided to take it away from that particular school while at the same time the school board was urgently approached by the FAVI board to demand a profound investigation of the matter. The school-board in question reiterated its commitment in the field of integrated education and has promised to find out what went wrong.
Says the class-room teacher in the other school where the child has been integrated now:
"I don't see what caused all the commotion! The child is normal; not particularly bright but neither backward. You people from the FAVI don't have to come so often; I'll let you know when I need you; I can make the enlarged photocopies myself and, incidentally , I use them for the other kids too and they love it!"
There were two earlier cases of regular teachers refusing to co-operate, or rather of the FAVI staff sensing a negative attitude in advance,. Although under different circumstances we would have mounted the barricades to change these attitudes in the case of children we do not want to risk their victimization and in the two earlier cases it was decided not to register the child at those particular schools. In most cases, however, the regular class-room teachers approach integration of a handicapped child in their form as a challenge and in some cases have gone so far as to dedicate a lot of extra time to studying the specific problems of the visual handicap. But one thing stands to reason: integration of visually handicapped children into the regular school system is bound to fail, if there is not a strong, full-time support team available, to assist the child, the teacher, the head-master, the parents and the kids entire environment and to supply the aids and special learning material needed in every individual case. That kind of a support team has to be a team of experts specially trained for the programme. Of course we cannot compete with the highly specialized experts available in some of the highly developed countries. But, the late Sherry Raynor, president of the International Institute for Visually Impaired 0-7 in East Lansing, Mich. and at the time she was in Aruba, supervisor of the pre-school programme of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. said, during one of her visits:"If you ask me, you are the first in the world who are proving that it can really work!"
That sounds very nice, doesn't it? But at the same time it sounds like a serious warning: The first experiments in main-streaming education for the visually handicapped started in the United States in the late forties but throughout the years the enlightened educators had to cope with serious difficulties, like the ones we are experiencing at present. but we are decided to prove that it works! Perhaps, indeed, our small-scale Caribbean territories have the best chance to do so.