How community engagement can push inclusivity in education

In Brunei, there is a focus on inclusion when it comes to special needs education. In 1996 inclusive education was fostered through the First Special Education International Conference held locally. This event resulted from other international events that had taken place between 1975 and 1994.

These international events included the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the World Conference on Education for All, the Year of Special Needs in the Classroom and the World Conference on Special Needs Education in Salamanca, among many.

These events, in many ways, have influenced how Brunei has chosen to implement inclusive education.

By then, Brunei had passed and adopted a National Education Policy that mandated that all children, including the disabled, were to be provided with 12 years of basic education, a policy equivalent to the principle of ‘education for all’.

Subsequently, the Special Education Unit and the Division of Counselling and Career Guidance in the Ministry of Education were introduced.

In Brunei, there are inclusive schools registered under the Ministry of Education, and there are also special schools and centres registered under either the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports or the Ministry of Health. To date, students with severe to profound disabilities who require high levels of support remain in special schools and centres run by non-governmental organisations across the country.

Through an undergraduate module entitled “Education and Society in a Globalised World” offered to sociology and anthropology students at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, we have attempted to create a snapshot of the situation now for special needs students.

As part of our project, we – both students and professor – have sought to gather diverse views and perspectives from stakeholders on a complex social problem.

We are by no means experts in this field, but we believe there is a need for a wider perspective on special needs education and that modules like ours can help to address this and give students a chance to become more involved in their local communities.

Education and society

For one semester, we were introduced to the sociology of education and a variety of key topics and issues. We were also encouraged by our professor to develop pair or group education projects that would have significant real-life impact and could benefit the communities around us.

With the freedom to explore different aspects of education and what were considered pressing issues in Brunei’s education and society, we ‘stumbled’ across special education, an area we were initially not aware of. We realised that there were many members of our society out there that we had not been paying much attention to. We felt we needed to educate ourselves through a project on special education.

Our project consisted of three parts: a) the research whereby we worked individually and as a group to build up our (academic) understanding of the topic via reading and by collecting primary and secondary data via varied sources; b) a documentary we created as a result of the research; and c) screening the documentary to a public audience and handling questions from the audience. This article is another outcome of our project.

Through this project, we had the chance to talk to various people involved in the development of special education in Brunei, including policy-makers, educators, those working in government bodies such as the Special Education Unit, volunteers, families and individuals with special needs.

We had the opportunity to learn first hand about their aspirations and experiences as well as to hear them out with regard to how everyone in the community could join hands to help. We also discussed among ourselves many reflections, insights and observations that have helped us grow.

At least one of us, out of this project, is now keen to pursue further studies in special education and at the same time is becoming more involved in community work to assist students with special needs in various NGOs and organisations.

Special education at a glance

In the global context, many social, pedagogical and economic issues associated with special education have been prominent for some time. The debate regarding segregation or integration has not been settled and remains a major topic in policy and practice.

Many schools, despite their proclaimed commitment to inclusive education, still opt to separate special needs pupils from the rest. At the same time, research has shown that integration of some special needs students might not work for everyone. Stigma and labelling prevail due to ignorance and lack of knowledge with regard to the different forms of special needs.

Very often special needs children are classified into a single category that is usually, unfortunately, associated with negative connotations. At the same time, policies and practices are introduced in ways that tend to limit children’s abilities to learn and decide independently while not necessarily helping minimise the difficulties and struggles these children and those working with them may experience.

Through our project, we have learnt that many societies still foster a negative social stigma towards people with special needs in general. And their respective education systems still do not pay much attention to special education yet. In many places, this very area is still in its early days of development, including countries in Asia.

Brunei’s inclusive and special education

Despite Brunei’s commitment to special needs and inclusive education, we have learnt through our project that special education in Brunei has faced many issues similar to those reported in other contexts. These issues include challenges underlying persistent social stigma and prejudice, as parents of children with special needs and individuals with special needs told us.

The term ‘inclusive education’ can be viewed in at least two ways: as an approach that serves children with disabilities within the general education setting or as a principle that supports and welcomes diversity among all learners. While Brunei is well on track when it comes to the former, the question is to what extent the Brunei community is aware of and embraces the latter.

From our observations and the data collected, it is undeniable that there seems to be a lack of acknowledgment and understanding of different types of disabilities. Likewise, a lack of awareness of special needs, special education and inclusive education in society generally is evident. There are also differing understandings of the word inclusion and the different categories of special needs among those interviewed.

These issues often lead to the formation of negative preconceptions that stigmatise learners and even their families. All these combined factors can complicate special education and inclusive education policy and can make it difficult to achieve inclusion.

Even with an adequate system, there is no guarantee that such a system would be able to achieve its vision when there is a lack of social cooperation and social consensus regarding special needs and inclusion.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah recently expressed his concern that, despite the efforts made by the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports in helping special needs students acquire skills for employment, employers in the public and private sectors are not keen to hire them.

His Majesty then asked: “Why is it happening? Are the courses below the required standards or are there other reasons such as poor teaching or is the environment not conducive to training?”

Alongside the issues highlighted above, there is a shortage of special education teachers, a critical issue also raised by His Majesty as a concern for the Ministry of Education to address. This shortage may be influenced by the socially (re)produced perception that this career is too challenging and hard to sustain.

With the annual increase in the number of special needs students, more special needs pupils have been placed in mainstream classes. This addition has undoubtedly brought about more challenges for teachers and is taking a toll on the Special Education Unit under the Ministry of Education.

Though the above-mentioned issues have much to do with societal perspectives and perceptions when it comes to special needs and special education, it is important to note that specific ministries in Brunei have been asked to address and tackle the issues. This shows that leadership does play a critical role in the inclusivity agenda.

Contradictions, paradoxes and challenges

We have also found contradictions and paradoxes embedded in the inclusivity agenda and practice. For example, inclusive special education in mainstream classes that include special needs students is not fully practised in all schools due to the societal segregation mentality in place.

This is a major concern for parents as this practice itself restricts the social capabilities of their children and continues to instil the idea that their special needs children will always be apart from ‘mainstream’ society. These special needs pupils comprise children with a whole range of disabilities.

Another paradox we have observed is that in situations where inclusivity is more evident in mainstream classes, some interviewees, who are categorised as being on the lower spectrum of autism, for example, still feel that they are different from everyone else. This throws into question the inclusivity efforts and suggests the need for a different approach to learning and education.

We have learnt from our project that the changes to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines have posed significant challenges to special needs students and to those working in special needs NGOs and centres in Brunei that are mostly under-resourced and under-staffed.

They have had to figure out how to help students with special needs participate in education through online classes during the pandemic. They were not sure if students’ varied needs and different difficulties were sufficiently acknowledged and addressed.

And perhaps one of the most challenging questions is to determine if the children are aware of the multiple levels of digital literacy they need to acquire. Added to these difficulties are other psychosocial problems experienced by all those involved.

Starting with small acts from the grassroots level

While acknowledging the crucial role of top-down policy and leadership in the implementation of inclusive education and special education nationwide, in light of our project, we would like to emphasise what we can do at the grassroots level with small and specific acts that could enable change.

We are calling for help from everyone in the community to come together and make contributions. This call for help is informed in particular by the insights obtained from the different NGOs who play a major role in assisting special needs children in Brunei.

The most obvious way to support NGOs is to donate, because they never get enough funding for the materials, resources and services they need for their educational programmes.

Donations can consist of financial input or items in accordance with the specific organisation’s need. Another way is to help spread the word about the good work of these NGOs and promote their activities on social media and share the joy that comes with lending a hand. Through social media we can tell others about the work that NGOs are doing, to help bring in potential donations and volunteers.

And every one of us can volunteer to help these organisations and special needs children by donating our time, skills, knowledge, experience and expertise.

Through our project, we are convinced that effective and sustainable inclusive education and special education require the whole community’s attention and help, from top-down policies and leadership to institutional support and classroom practices, and from NGOs’ initiatives to individual efforts to help out.

The damage caused by lack of awareness and knowledge and by the social habit of labelling is incalculable. We can all make changes from within while joining hands in common cause.

Writing this article is a way for us to share our journey to educate ourselves about the topic as well as to highlight the importance of making contributions to society through the knowledge and education we acquire at university as well as from community engagement projects that our module has enabled and inspired us to pursue.

Dk Syazana Syafiqah Binti Pg Mohammed Suffian majored in sociology and anthropology at Universiti Brunei Darussalam and is currently a part-time tutor who aims to pursue a career in teaching and education. Nurul Farah Fatasya Binti Mohammad Ramli is a freelance graphic designer and digital marketer as well as a full-time marketing executive who completed a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and anthropology at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. E-mail: Nur Syasya Natasya Binti Karim is a bachelor of arts degree holder who majored in sociology and anthropology at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Phan Le Ha is head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group and senior professor in the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is also affiliated with the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This article is part of a series, ‘Sociology Students Write Back and Forward’. The first article, which gives an overview, can be read here.