Quality education paves the way for children with disabilities to thrive
Sunduijav Delegdulam: “Don’t be discouraged that you can’t achieve anything because you lost your vision. We have a lot to learn and create.”
A neatly-dressed boy with dark glasses was translating into English for a dozen children sitting around a table. His name is Sunduijav Delegdulam, a 14-year-old with a congenital visual impairment. He began learning English on his own at the age of seven and now he is fluent in English. Now he is helping his siblings and friends who also have a loss of vision.
Going to school
His life began in complete darkness. Although he has never seen his mother, not the sunlight, he is trying to shine a light into his life. D.Sunduijav, like other visually impaired children, entered the specialized school No 116 for children with special needs when he started school. His parents, N. Delegdulam and Kh. Munguntsetseg, checked in to all eye clinics in town to get his son to have a vision. Knowing that not much they can do about it, they decided to focus on their son’s education and prospects.
When Sunduijav first went to school, he realized that other children were using Cyrillic and reading. He was upset and angry with his parents for not being able to learn Cyrillic. However, by the time he was in the third grade, he began to understand his difference from others and the challenges he was facing.
Knowing that the Cyrillic alphabet is for people who can see and read, Sunduijav understood that he needed to learn the braille alphabet with the aid of a computer. Ever since then, he started learning computers, which opened up a world of opportunities for him.
Seeing the potential of their son, who is a bright young man with a big learning aptitude, Delegdulam and Munguntsetseg enrolled their son at the “King’s Kids” private school in Ulaanbaatar when he was in the 5th grade.
This was the first time that D.Sunduijav started schooling with ordinary children. “Because I have been learning English at English language training centres, I was accepted to the “King’s Kids”, said Sunduijav.
His enrolment in the ordinary school has been a new experience for everyone. His class teacher Ms. Kh.Zaya said that it was her first experience teaching a visually impaired student. “Sunduijav was able to do many things on his own, like going to the classroom or bathroom alone, and finding his desk,” said Ms Kh. Zaya.
She added that they felt sorry for him in the beginning and didn’t know how to explain the lessons to him. But when she saw that he was learning as well as anyone else, she stopped feeling sorry for him. Sunduijav was coping well in his new school. Whenever the teacher instructs everyone to open the books and turn to a certain page, Sunduijav can easily find the pages of his book on his computer screen just like everyone else.
Lack of teachers’ aides although demand is high
In 2019, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science decreed children with disabilities are to enrol in secondary schools. As of 2020, 5,986 children with special needs enrolled in schools in Mongolia. 1771 of them enrolled in special schools and 385 are attending in the Lifelong Learning Centers. The remaining 3857 are enrolled in ordinary secondary schools, according to B. Gereltuya, a senior specialist of the Special Needs Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Science.
There are six special education schools nationwide. All are located in Ulaanbaatar. She stressed that children with special needs living in rural areas attend ordinary schools. However, according to Ms B.Gereltuya, there are not enough teachers’ aides to help children with developmental disabilities in secondary schools due to a lack of funding. The allocation of variable costs related to the school enrolment of children with disabilities is supposed to be three times higher compared to the normal children. Schools shall provide additional incentives for the teachers who work with children with disabilities. Unfortunately, these laws and regulations are not implemented in reality, only to remain on paper.
Focusing on your strengths, not the challenges
Later on, Kh. Munguntsetseg decided to enrol her son on a public school to help his son improve his skills in mathematics. Several school administrators refused his enrolment as they didn’t have the capacity to teach children with disabilities.
“But didn’t give up,” said Munguntsetseg. As a result of the persistent effort of their parents, Sunduijav started studying in Ulaanbaatar’s secondary school No 11 last September. “I couldn't follow my son's learning because I didn't know Braille. So, I taught him typing. This helped me to check his learning when he uses computers for his lessons.”
In the same fashion, she expected teachers in the ordinary school would help her son to learn. Sunduijav learned special applications to scan books. Visually impaired children tend to lag in mathematics because math problems and formulas cannot be easily expressed in audio. But Sunduijav’s parents sought additional help from a private tutor in math.
“Children with special needs can succeed if they first find out their strengths and develop their unique abilities, but not focusing on their challenges. Every child has a right to equal education,” said Munguntsetseg.
Children with visual impairment tend to develop a stronger sense of hearing and other cognitive senses. For Sunduijav, he started learning piano and composing his music.
Equal access to education should start from kindergarten
There are many shortcomings when children with disabilities are attending regular schools as this is a new phenomenon. For children with visual impairment, the main learning method is to listen and understand the audio lessons. However, attending a school that has advanced training curricula in math and physics, Sunduijav faced yet another challenge as these subjects require more illustrations than verbal explanations. Textbooks are not available in braille. However, Sunduijav found many helpful online resources helpful.
Social inclusion is another issue for children with special needs as some of their peers lack understanding about differently-abled children. “My classmates treat me differently. Some pity on me, or some try to help when it’s not needed,” said Sunduijav. “I would usually approach and initiate a conversation with my friends.”
T. Uyanga, D. Sunduijav's class teacher, said: “If we want to ensure equal access to education for children with special needs, we need to start it from kindergarten from an early age.” This will help other children to understand special needs and help them in a friendly way.
Leave no one behind
Leaving no one behind is at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDG 10 sets out to reduce inequalities and SDG 4 is to support quality education. These two goals are most relevant to people with special needs. Mongolia’s National Voluntary Report on SDGs implementation highlighted that the children of herders and low-income families and children with special needs lack equal access to education.
It is said that there are about 11,000 children with special needs in our country. It’s worth noting that enrollment of children with disabilities in regular schools is progress towards achieving the goal of sustainable development and it’s an important step to ensure every child has access to quality education, thus no one is left behind.
"Lessons that are not usually taught in special schools were taught in ordinary schools. The special schools’ curriculum lags behind the ordinary schools,” said Sunduijav. He doubts that children with disabilities would receive quality education and good job prospects unless they are provided with equal opportunities to learn and thrive.
Therefore, activists and scientists advocate for equal access to education for children with disabilities.
M. Sod-Erdem, a friend of Sunduijav, also wants to study in a regular secondary school like him and get a good education. “I want to go to regular school, but I don't have a laptop. I could continue going to the special school for children with disabilities as I am used to it. However, we are worried if we are not starting from the same educational level as everyone else has,” said Sod-Erdem.
Sod-Erdem is truly proud of his friend's diligence and perseverance. D. Sunduijav, who aims to become an accomplished ICT engineer in the future, cheers his friend up: “Don’t be discouraged that you can’t achieve anything because you lost your vision. We have a lot to learn and create.”
This story was written by Ch. Bolortuya and first published in Mongolian on "Unuudur" newspaper (https://bit.ly/3ouaBW5). Ch. Bolortuya attended the training on the SDGs, offered by the UN Mongolia in cooperation with the Media Council of Mongolia. Attending the training, she explored the SDGs further and was dedicated to raising awareness on inclusive education for children with disabilities in Mongolia.