Until recently, the school system was unable to cope with children with special needs, because of a lack of resources and teachers.
Disabled children join mainstream
Staff at the physiotherapy unit at Thimphu Hospital have a lot to smile about these days. One of their disabled patients, 10-year-old Tandin (left), has passed his first year at school. And he has done well.
Nothing extraordinary perhaps, except Tandin walks with crutches and going to school for the first time has been a challenge. He is a long-term patient at the hospital. He first attended physiotherapy clinic because of suspected polio (although the Health Ministry has not had a record of a polio case since 1986).
Tandin, later become a student at the informal "school" the physiotherapy unit set up to help disabled children with the basics of reading and writing.
Nine-year-old Pema (below), with cerebral palsy, is also a patient at the hospital. Tandin and Pema became the first among disabled children to be enrolled into Changzamtog primary school in the capital.
Tandin and Pema, who moves about with a walker, have been able to blend in well in the school environment despite their disabilities. "Our older children volunteer in turns to help the two boys," said the school's headmaster.
"They need help to get into classrooms, and may need to be lifted onto their seats. Sometimes they need help to go to the toilet. But our other children have learnt a lot having Tandin and Pema around."
The Education Department has announced plans to integrate children with disabilities into regular schools as part of an "inclusive education" programme. A pilot project, being launched in a junior high school in Thimphu in 2001, is the first step.
The programme includes renovating the school to provide basic facilities such as ramps to improve accessibility for disabled children. It also covers training for teachers in teaching disabled children and coping with their special needs.
The aim is to replicate the pilot in one school in each of the country's 20 districts. The trial in inclusive education is part of efforts to provide education for all, especially those who have been unreached till now.
UNICEF supports special education in Bhutan by providing teaching and learning materials, and basic educational supplies. It is also supporting the training of teachers in providing special education.
Back in Thimphu, Tandin and Pema walk to school everyday like most children do in Bhutan. "It is no problem going to school. Sometimes on the way home when I get tired, my friends help to carry me," said Tandin.
One of the greatest gifts of being able to go to school like all the other children is the number of friends Tandin has made.
"He can do so many things even though he cannot walk properly," said 13-year-old Dechen, a neighbour who attends the same school as Tandin. "He knows how to cook and look after himself. " Whenever we go to the chorten (temple), we pray that he will be able to walk one day."
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