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Seeam Ul Karim, a 19-year-old student, does not let his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder throw him off track.
“I’m trying really hard for the oncoming exams and the load of homework,” he says with a broad smile and apologizes for not being available for a long interview.
He does not go to a school specifically aimed for students with learning disabilities. Rather, he goes to a school where the authorities make arrangements with specially trained teachers to give him lessons.
His single mother Sajida Rahman usually spends more than Tk 120,000 every three months for his tuition fees alone—perhaps more than any other schools in the country.
However, being an autistic, Seeam may not understand the concept of money. “But I’d spent all my savings and done everything I could just to see him equipped to survive without my support,” she says.
When Sajida tried to get Seeam admitted, at least 30 schools refused to take him.
While doctors suggest that children with special needs be admitted to regular schools to study alongside other children, the school authorities do not take them.
Commenting on the available opportunities of education for children with disabilities, Dr Nafeesur Rahman, director, National Forum of Organisations Working with the Disabled, says that although primary education is a must for all children in the country, schools refuse to take children with disabilities through the loopholes of the law.
Although the Compulsory Primary Education Act 1990 makes primary schooling mandatory for children, it states that the schools are not bound to take students with disabilities, he says.
Moreover, not many parents in Bangladesh have the means to provide the high expenditure needed for the schooling of children with disabilities.
Apart from the handfuls of centres run by National Disabled Development Foundation and several NGOs providing education to these children, there are about 60 government run schools for children with disabilities in the country. Besides these, there are no opportunities for them.
“Despite forming 10% of the country’s population, these children are hardly paid any heed to by their families and the state,” says Shahidul Haque, chief executive of Social Assistance and Rehabilitation for the Physically Vulnerable (SARPV).
Farzeen Ferdous Alam, president of Oggro, an organisation aimed to extend educational support to visually impaired girls, points out that Braille books are very expensive.
She says the cost of Braille books needs to be sold at reduced price or distributed free of cost to encourage more visually impaired students in studies.
Nazrana Yasmin Hira, programme manager of Manusher Jonno Foundation says,
“There is no specially-designed curriculum in schools for the children with disabilities. Besides, the school premises, including the lavatories, are not made with considerations to the needs of the physically challenged.”
Pointing out that teachers need training to teach children with special needs, Nafeesur Rahman suggests that training of primary school teachers should include a course on special education.
He adds that graduates from the Department of Special Education, Dhaka University, can easily work as teachers’ trainers in such courses.
“We have estimated it would cost only about Tk 12 crore a year. The money can be easily allocated from our education budget,” he says.
Parents sometimes do not try and get their children admitted to schools because they become extremely disappointed and frustrated when they give birth to children with disabilities. “Many people believe that disabled children are outcome of their parents’ sins, making the parents suffer from a sense of guilt,” he adds.
In the primary stages, most parents go through a stage of denial and do not bring their children to specialists harming the child’s development. He said, even when they come to terms with the truth, they remain too frustrated to try and get their children admitted to a school.
“People need to understand that these children can be turned into skilled human resources through the right kind of schooling at the right time”, he said.