Shades in the Crayon Box: The Stories of Kevin and Syaiful
Under the 1in11 partnership, madrasas in Central Java are making inclusive education a reality for students with disabilities
“Yellow,” Kevin, 9, said to himself as he dropped a stack of colourful papers onto the table in front of him. He then moved to another object – a piece of crayon – and put his magnifying glass an inch closer to his nose. “Blue,” he noted. He continued around the room, quietly identifying the colours of any objects that caught his eyes through the magnifying glass.
For Kevin, the different colours and shades inspire him to explore his surroundings but often appear blurred and indistinct.
Two days after he was born, he had a convulsion and was immediately rushed to the hospital. “The doctor said he did not get enough fluid, and it was affecting his brain,” Kevin’s mother Naniek recalled. “He was hospitalized for fifteen days.”
Nine months later, they noticed white layers in Kevin’s right eye. The doctor suggested eye surgery, but Naniek and her husband Budi could not bear to see their only son going through the procedure at such an early age. When Kevin was five, he finally had the surgery, but by then both of his eyes had developed conditions, and the operation failed to save his eyesight.
Kevin’s limited eyesight has made it difficult for him to navigate the world around him, and he often trips and hurts himself. Because his house is located in a hollowed-out part of the ground that he has to climb to reach the main road, Kevin spends most of his time at home.
When he was sent to a public primary school nearby, Kevin struggled to make friends.
“He cried most of the time after school because the other children mocked him,” Budi said quietly. “Kevin became easily anxious and would be easily startled by unfamiliar noises and touches.” Not having the heart to see his son suffer, Budi decided to let Kevin stay at home for one year.
One day, a lady named Fitri came to their house.
“My relative, who is your neighbour, told me that your child needs support,” she said. Fitri turned out to be a teacher at Madrasah Ibtidaiyah (MI) 1 Ciberem. At the time, the madrasa had just started to take part in the inclusive education programme under the 1in11 partnership - a collaboration between the Government of Indonesia, UNICEF and Lembaga Pendidikan Maarif Nahdlatul Ulama (LP Maarif NU), with support from Reach Out to Asia (ROTA) and the FC Barcelona Foundation.
Naniek and Budi were not immediately convinced when Fitri offered Kevin a place in her madrasa. Their previous experience made them reluctant to send their only son to school. But Fitri was quick to explain that Kevin would not be alone because she had also reached out to other children like Kevin.
That was when Kevin met Syaiful, 12, another child with a disability. Syaiful mostly uses his left hand to do everything as he cannot freely move his lower body or his right hand. He was repeatedly rejected and could not find a school that would accept him. Like Kevin, Syaiful had stayed at home and did not go to school for over two years.
Accepting Fitri’s offer has been the best decision for Nanik and Budi, as well as for Syaiful’s parents Surip and Nur. Not only did they finally find the right school for their sons, but their children also found friends in each other. Kevin naturally grabs and pushes Syaiful’s wheelchair around the school, while Syaiful plays the ‘big brother’ role, giving Kevin instructions and directions. The two have become inseparable, with Kevin being ‘the legs’ for Syaiful just as Syaiful has been ‘the eyes’ for Kevin.
“For two years, my son was turned down by two different schools and the third one only lasted for several months,” Surip said. “Here at MI Ciberem, Syaiful is treated nicely by the teachers and students. The school provides a wheelchair for him, so I don’t have to bring one from home.”
The pathway to becoming more inclusive has not been easy for MI Ciberem. “The first year was filled with learning, assessment and preparation,” recalled Darsiti, the inclusive education manager at the school. “We are still a new player in this field.”
Darsiti says she is thankful for the number of trainings and workshops related to inclusive education that she and her team have received from the 1in11 partnership. Out of the 14 teachers in the madrasah, all but one had been trained.
“We learned new knowledge and skills, such as how to identify disabilities and learning barriers, develop individual learning plans, modify learning sessions to make them more inclusive, talk to children positively, and explore collaborations to support the children,” she explained. Within only two years, 44 children with disabilities have been enrolled in the madrasa.
Fitri has seen changes in the community as well. “People are more aware that children with special needs also have rights in education,” she said. “Parents from lower economic backgrounds who thought that it was hopeless to get formal education in relatively more expensive special needs schools now realize that our school can give them hope for their children.”
“People are more aware that children with special needs also have rights in education,” she said.
“Parents from lower economic backgrounds who thought that it was hopeless to get formal education in relatively more expensive special needs schools now realize that our school can give them hope for their children.”
Darsiti and Fitri hope that the school can be provided with more tools to support their students, such as braille-printed materials, bean bags for anxiety training, a wobble stool for balancing and hearing aids, among other items. They think they have not only seen positive changes in the children, but also their parents.
“I can see that Kevin’s mother is getting more self-confident as she watches her son improve,” Darsiti said. Syaiful’s mother often expresses her gratitude for her son gaining knowledge and skills, especially in reciting the Quran. Syaiful’s father even said that his son can recite the Quran better than him,” Darsiti said, laughing.
On a recent day, the two families met up outside of Kevin's home. Kevin and Syaiful talked, played and told jokes – things they have not done since their school closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their parents, who have also become close, said that they hope their children will make positive contributions to the community. They still believe that Kevin can become a policeman and Syaiful can teach the Quran, just as the two boys dream of doing one day.
For Syaiful and Kevin, their journeys have just started. Together, they brave the world of more colours and distant places to explore. Kevin can now name colours and shades in his crayon box, something that did not come easy for him because of his limited eyesight. Syaiful is there to support him, as well as their teachers, their parents and the whole community which is now a safer and more accepting space for them.