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Inside an Indonesian Special-Needs School

In this guest edition of The Interview, Dikanaya Tarahita and Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat talk to Mawar Sari Hidayat, a teacher at an Indonesian special-needs school.

Education is a major problem for disabled people in Indonesia. Regular schools are often unwilling admit and accommodate those with disabilities. As a result, these students have no option but to enroll at special-needs schools, or sekolah luar biasa (SLB).

The problem with such schools is that they are known for being unable to accommodate large numbers of disabled students, and they fall behind when it comes to the quality of education and the lack of facilities.

In this guest edition of The Interview, Dikanaya Tarahita and Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat talk to Mawar Sari Hidayat, a teacher at a special-needs school in Bandung, West Java. She is also a consultant for Sekolabilitas, an Indonesian organization dedicated to helping disabled students gain access to better quality education.

Dikanaya Tarahita & Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat: What is the curriculum used at SLBs? How is it different to regular schools?

Mawar Sari Hidayat: The curriculum that is currently used by Indonesian special-needs schools is the 2013 curriculum. However, there is an absence of curriculum guidebooks given by the government. The existing curriculum only provides themes, without giving further explanation. As an example, the curriculum on “Introduction to Animals” gives no descriptive explanation of the animal classifications that need to be taught, how teachers should explain the topic, and what kind of learning media should be used to help students understand [more] about animals.

Ironically, the curriculum guidebook for special-needs schools is not even sold commercially. In Bandung, for example, even though such guidebooks are available, it is [produced] by a publisher which partners with the provincial government. This means that the [only] way to get it is by [making a request] directly to the Ministry of Education at the provincial level.

However, the guidebook is not provided free of charge. Special-needs schools and teachers should purchase it and other supporting books independently. The impact is that if the school is less proactive and has limited financial resources to procure those books, then there are only three options: 1) costs are charged to parents; 2) teachers must be creative and proactive in making their own learning program; or 3) SLB students are left with no proper curriculum.

One more problem: When it comes to the issue of SLB students doing the national final examination, not all SLB students are required [to take it]. However, if the school sees that certain students are capable of taking the exam, the SLB can direct the students to take a package C exam (an exam for those who are schooled through non-formal education).

With regard to blind students, the government remains unable to provide examinations in braille for them. Consequently, schools and teachers are often required to independently transcribe the exams into braille so that students who have visual impairments can take them.

In addition, the curriculum for SLBs is still highly focused on pursuing academic achievement, rather than skills improvements. This has a drawback for students who have an IQ below average, as this would [lead to] them being taught aspects that are unnecessary for their daily life.

There is a need to change the curriculum for slow learner students, where the emphasis of the curriculum is on self-improvement. The concept can be similar to vocational schools. From this, students with learning difficulties can be taught skills and capabilities that can make them more independent in their lives and to pursue certain careers in the future.

Tarahita & Rakhmat: What about the tools or media for learning?

Hidayat: The lack of curriculum I mentioned [earlier] is exacerbated with the limited learning media facilities available at SLBs. Let me take the example of special schools for the blind. The lack of support-learning facilities has hampered the learning process tremendously.

In Indonesia, there is still limited availability of braille books. If any, they only contain the basic curriculum. Meanwhile, learning media with language (books only) is obviously not sufficient to accommodate their needs. Supposedly, for the blind [such] learning media is directed to something concrete, rather than something abstract.

For example, when teaching “Introduction to Animals,” blind students will find it difficult to understand. Learning media such as miniature animals to stimulate their touching sense to recognize shapes should be given. In reality, however, the budget to provide these media is not available. At the end, it is teachers who are required to be creative, and [they] often use their own money to accommodate those needs.

Tarahita & Rakhmat: What are the difficulties that teachers often face? What should the government do to improve teacher conditions at SLBs?

Hidayat: Even though there is already a classification for Indonesian special-needs schools … some [institutions] have no option but to accept all special-needs students regardless of the kinds of disabilities they have. This is because these schools also want to fulfill the required minimum quota on the number of students. If this quota is not met, the SLB is likely to face closure by the government.

This situation has a considerable implication on the teachers, mainly because they are not able to implement an integrated learning system. Teaching a class consisting of students with different needs is not an easy task as each of them requires different treatment. It is not hard to find a situation where a teacher is required to teach a class consisting of a blind [student], a slow learner and an autistic [child]. This means that the teacher must apply different treatments in one class as each student requires different “communication language” and learning tools.

It is a reality that teachers at SLBs have a heavier burden than their counterparts in regular schools. Why?

First, as I mentioned, teachers at SLBs are required to handle students with different needs and requirements. Moreover, often times they act not only as homeroom teachers, but they are also asked to teach various subjects such as mathematics, language and arts. This makes the academic burden very heavy for teachers at SLBs.

Second, besides teaching, we are also required to provide counseling to students. This is because guru pendamping khusus (shadow teachers) are not available at SLBs. They are only available in sekolah inklusi — regular schools that accept students with certain disabilities. This situation often disrupts the learning process in schools as teachers are required to teach while simultaneously helping to fulfill a student’s needs. For example, we need 30 minutes to help autistic students enter and sit in class, and we need to accompany students if they would like to go to the toilet.

Third, teachers are also unable to change classes to teach other students. This is because there are dependency and comfort factors for students who are used to [particular teachers that] interact with them. This also means that when the class moves to another level, the teacher must follow suit.

It is often the case that a teacher teaches the same students [throughout] their schooling life until they graduate. There are also many cases where students do not want to go to school when they know that their teachers are absent. So, for example, when a teacher is ill, students would not go to school because they are reluctant to be taught by others.

Fourth, it is true that SLB teachers have started to receive regular training [and attend] workshops and seminars by the government. But, unfortunately, these facilities are only given to SLB teachers who have a civil servant status. Those who do not have such a status are unable to access various free training programs provided by the government. I think in order to compensate the curriculum that has no proper guidance, the government should help enhance teacher [skills] regardless of their status.

Tarahita & Rakhmat: Lastly, is there anything you want to add?

Hidayat: I have deep sympathy toward parents of special-needs children. Presumably, the government’s program of free tuition for the nine-year compulsory education has no impact on special-needs students. Most SLBs in the country still require tuition fees, although they are categorized as public schools. The amount varies in each school. For example, in the SLB I am working at, the tuition fee for each student is 100,000 Indonesian rupiah ($7.40) per month. This is aimed [as a subsidy] for those students coming from poor families, who are not required to pay tuition as long as they are able to show surat keterangan tidak mampu, a letter that says they are [disadvantaged] economically. In many cases, parents are not only required to pay the tuition fee for their children, but also for the supporting facilities.

I think if the government of Indonesia wants inclusive education for all its citizens, the nine-year free tuition policy it introduced must also be applied to SLBs.

*[Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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