Poverty: a consequence of inactivity

poverty-no-accident

Contrast these two excerpts from recent news reports, both of which refer to the current situation in the UK.

Despite the financial crisis, the total number of millionaires in Britain has risen by 50% over the last four years (The Week May 16th 2014)

3.5 million children will be in poverty by 2020 (BBC News Website June 9th 2014)

How are we supposed to interpret these two contrasting statements? Should we be concerned? I suspect that this depends on your point of view. Possibly, if you find yourself in the category of those individuals mentioned in the first report you may feel comfortable and even satisfied with your situation. By contrast, if you are the parent of one of the children referred to in the BBC report you are likely to be anxious, worried and possibly angry. However, we should not assume that those who find themselves in a position of affluence are not concerned for the welfare of those in poverty, or that those struggling to survive don’t in some ways feel sorry for those who are most wealthy (this is a serious point). Fortunately there are many wealthy individuals in this country, as in others who are challenging the moral status of a society in which these starkly contrasted situations co-exist.

Of course, the disparities between individuals living in wealth and poverty can be found in all countries, but today I am most concerned for the situation here in the UK. In 2010 the then Labour government passed the Child Poverty Act and put plans into place to challenge those conditions that lead to deprivation and social exclusion. A target was set to reduce the number of children living in absolute poverty (a measure related to median income levels) to below 5%. It has just been announced that this target is now seen not only to be unattainable, but for the first time since the 1960s there will be no reduction in child poverty this decade.

I asked if we should be concerned about this trend. We most certainly should if we recognise the consequences of such levels of societal inequality. Evidence suggests that as poverty increases so does the potential for social tension, increased disaffection and decline in standards of health. Poverty can be a significant cause of disability as a result of malnutrition, poor access to health care and inadequate housing conditions. All of these factors have significant impact upon the stability of communities and the overall economic welfare of the nation.

It will, quite rightly, be argued that the levels of poverty in the UK cannot compare to those seen in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, or some South American or Asian countries. Poverty may well be a relative term and clearly manifests itself at different levels from country to country. However, when poverty is set to increase in what is still seen as one of the world’s most stable economies, there is surely cause for us to be worried. In particular we should be concerned that in a nation with such affluence our political leaders appear to be either unable or unwilling to tackle an issue that is set to blight the lives of so many children. The inactivity of policy makers in this area results in the apportioning of blame to those very individuals most at risk of falling into poverty, and places an additional burden of care upon those charities, agencies and concerned professionals who express concern. Of course, a realignment of current socio-economic policies could do much to arrest this decline in the nation’s status. Unfortunately I see little evidence that this is likely to happen and suspect that before long it will fall to the lot of teachers, social workers and medical professionals to pick up the pieces from the fallout resulting from increased child poverty. I am normally a very optimistic individual, but both of the news reports cited above left me somewhat depressed.

A question of motivation?

"Nothing about us without us" is a slogan adopted by many campaign groups, including those organised by people with disabilities.

“Nothing about us without us” is a slogan adopted by many campaign groups, including those organised by people with disabilities.

A few days ago Tim Loreman, an internationally respected researcher into inclusive education from Canada wrote a thoughtful and challenging reply to my posting titled “Words of wisdom keeping us on our toes” (7th February 2014). He raised an issue that many of us have been aware of for many years but still have some difficulty resolving. I had written a piece inspired by comments from Professor Peter Mittler, a leading researcher and campaigner for the rights of people with disabilities, in which he had been critical of the UNESCO Report on Education for All. Peter had suggested that children with disabilities were largely invisible in what he conceded was an otherwise excellent report. His criticism implied that whilst the report had dealt thoroughly with issues related to poverty, gender and economic circumstances, all significant influences upon denying children access to education, disability which is an equally pernicious cause of exclusion was given very limited attention. In response I had agreed with him and expressed the view that a lack of data related to disability, cited by the report’s authors was not a legitimate reason for the failure to provide a more detailed discussion of what is undoubtedly a critical issue.

Tim Loreman responded by posting a reply that expresses a concern that many of us working in this field share. Is it possible that when we conduct research or write about children with disabilities or special educational needs are we emphasising their difference and contributing further to their exclusion from mainstream educational provision? Or are we raising awareness of the need for teachers and others to adopt practices that ensure that they are better included in learning? Tim expresses this dilemma very effectively when he writes:-

“On one hand there is the argument, based on solid logic, that if we conduct research that refers directly to children with disabilities we only emphasize their difference [and] perpetuate notions of their ‘otherness’. I agree with that argument, but by the same token I am worried that if we sanitize our research of direct reference to disability then what we do is help make these children invisible – just like in the UNESCO report”

The point that Tim makes here is an important one and is certainly deserving of the attention of all of us working in this field. No matter whether we are teachers, researchers, advocates or special educators we need to consider what it is that motivates us and leads to behave as we do. It is this issue of motivation that I feel is at the heart of the challenge. We need to be constantly asking the question, who am I working for and why? Reading further down Tim’s posting he observed that:-

“So, on one hand I would never want to contribute to the oppression of kids with disabilities, but on the other hand I think we need to be realistic about the differences that exist and be pragmatic about it. So, should I do research on teacher attitudes towards disability?  …you can argue that just doing the research validates whatever views a teacher might hold. But on a more practical level I want to know what those attitudes are and how they might be improved, especially if they are negative. So, I choose to do the research and make the issues visible, but it must be said not without misgivings and there are certainly people who think I should not do it”.

Tim’s point about wanting to know how teacher attitudes can be improved seems to me to be at the core of this issue. His work is about improving the lives of children and teachers, and his motivation comes from a recognition that some learners have been marginalised and excluded from gaining opportunities for appropriate schooling.  The misgivings that he expresses are surely an important safeguard that we all need to maintain.

Last year, along with colleagues with whom I work in Bangalore on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme, I attended the Asia Federation on Intellectual Disabilities (AFID) biennial conference in Delhi. This conference sets an important tone for the debate around who should be involved in the promotion of inclusion and the roles that we play.  This was the second AFID conference that I had attended and the reason I find it uplifting is simple. The podium at the conference is given to a range of speakers, mainly from Asia who are making an important contribution to the creation of more inclusive services. Foremost amongst these speakers are those who themselves have experienced marginalisation and discrimination as a result of the labels of learning difficulty or disability applied to them by others. The conference provides a shared forum for parents, children and adults with disabilities, teachers, health care professionals, academics and others who have a shared concern to understand the barriers to inclusion and how these may be overcome.  The mutual respect that was in evidence across all parties who have a shared motivation was clear.

Disability groups across the world have quite rightly adopted the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us”. The onus is upon those of us working in this area to make a commitment to work and research with the very individuals for whom we express concern and with whom we would wish to demonstrate solidarity.

The words that Tim Loreman used to express this dilemma are important and demonstrate why his own motivations for researching in this area enable him to contribute so effectively to the current debates  surrounding inclusion. There are times when we all need to take a pause in order to examine our work and ensure that we are maintaining those principles that we claim for the actions that we take.

This is an important area for debate and a significant opportunity to increase our understanding. Do feel free to join the discussion.

Words of wisdom keeping us on our toes

Pere Mittler. An outstanding leader in campaigning for the educational rights of children

Professor Peter Mittler. An outstanding leader in campaigning for the educational rights of children

 

One of the most perplexing aspects of writing this blog is that I am never quite sure about who is reading , what motivates them to come to the text and what they think about what I have written. Of course there are some individuals who post replies quite regularly and it is always good to have an exchange with them through this interesting media. I am informed by the regular analytical statistics provided by the site that since beginning this process about a month ago the blog has been visited by people from 21 countries. Some of these don’t surprise me, being based in England I had anticipated a few visits from the UK and similarly because of my regular commitments in India and Ireland I had thought there might be some interest there. Visitors to the blog from Iraq, Palestine and Botswana and other distant places were not expected, but are none the less welcome.

Today I received an email from an esteemed colleague who had read the blog and had been drawn in particular to my postings about the UNESCO Education For All Report. Several of the comments posted in response to my musings on this document have been particularly valued for helping me to move my own thinking forward, but to receive this communication by email added a further dimension. The email suggested that we should have particular concerns “about the invisibility of children with disabilities from an otherwise excellent report”. This is in fact an issue that I had intended to address in one of these postings but in many ways having received this email has added a certain urgency to the task.  The cause of this sudden jolt into action is the authority of the individual who despatched the mail. Professor Peter Mittler is indisputably one of the most influential researchers, writers and activists to have worked for the promotion of inclusive education through the latter half of the twentieth century and still active today. For many of us working in this field his influence and authority have been a guiding factor in our work for a more equitable society that recognises the rights of all individuals. When Peter speaks many of us sit up and take notice – his words of wisdom expressed by email have had the effect of keeping me on my toes!

Prompted by Peter’s mail I returned to the UNESCO report with his critical comments in mind. The suggestion that he makes that there is a lack of detail with regards to children with disability in the report is undoubtedly justified. The report acknowledged that:-

“Often children do not make it to school because of disadvantages they are born with. One of the most neglected disadvantages is disability. New analysis from four countries shows that children at higher risk of disability are far more likely to be denied a chance to go to school, with differences widening depending on the type of disability”.

A careful scrutiny of the UNESCO report shows quite clearly that it has produced little if anything by the way of new information, though it does draw upon data collected by other agencies and reported elsewhere. In particular the document refers to the World Report on Disability produced by the World Health Organisation in 2011.

According to the World Health Survey, in 14 of 15 low and middle income countries, people of working age with disabilities were about one-third less likely to have completed primary school.”

Peter’s frustration that the report gives inadequate attention to the issue of disability is certainly understandable. The influence of poverty, and deprivation upon the Education For All goals are very well presented within the UNESCO report and are certainly factors that impact upon the rate of disability and its management in socially and economically disadvantaged countries. However, it is equally true to say that in all societies having a child with a disability in the family can lead to poverty, social isolation and deprivation, the very factors discussed by UNESCO in this report. Here we have a particularly vicious circle that surely warrants the attention of us all.

Why then are disability matters not given the prominence that many of us would wish to see? The report indicates that:-

“Children with disabilities are often denied their right to education. However, little is known about their school attendance patterns. The collection of data on children with disabilities is not straightforward, but they are vital to ensure that policies are in place to address the constraints they face. Statistics on the education experience of children with disabilities are rare in part because household surveys, which tend to be the best source of information on access to school by different population groups, do not have sufficient information on the degree or type of disability, or their sample size is too small to make it possible to draw accurate conclusions”.

The reasoning given here relates entirely to the challenges of collecting accurate data with regards to the numbers of children presenting with disabilities.  This may well be factually accurate, but it is most certainly true that in all societies there is a recognition that where socio-economic difficulties, issues of conflict or natural disaster are common, the incidence of disability is likely to be great and the provision made to disabled children inadequate.

Whilst accepting that there are major challenges in quantifying  matters related to the numbers of disabled children in many of the countries reported, there are other important issues that would have benefited from a more detailed discussion. I would suggest that this is not a matter of numbers, but rather one of principle. It does not matter if we are talking about 100,000 or 30 million disabled children, the fact remains that every child deprived of access to appropriate schooling is an indictment upon society. The report highlights the need for increased training of teachers, the provision of supportive teaching and learning resources, the development of technology and the implementation of supportive assessment procedures. It gives excellent examples of where such innovation has reaped rewards for children, but fails to provide an indication of how the lives of disabled children have been transformed through these processes in some of the poorest areas of the world.

It is, of course, easy to be critical of a document that has so many excellent features. We should first of all commend the authors of the UNESCO report for the attention to detail that has been given to so many factors that lead to the marginalisation of children. But whilst accepting the reasons given for so little data related to children with disabilities, we should be pressing for changes to appear in the next report in order that we can all be given a clearer picture of both the challenges and the successes achieved in providing for disabled children.

When we voice our concerns we must do so in a supportive tone. But to remain quiet is not a reasonable option.

You can download a full copy of the report from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013