Children with disabilities struggle with schooling in South Korea
Asia-Pacific, August 10 2017
Children with disabilities struggle at regular schools, at which they often find themselves unsupervised. Although most children with disabilities attend regular schools as part of the government’s goal for an inclusive education system, their needs often go unnoticed or ignored. But even as parents try to find other options, these rarely exist.
Lee Seo-yeon, 14, has an intellectual disability. She attends a regular middle school in her neighborhood, Gangseo-gu in Seoul. Four of her classmates have other disabilities, all placed in a separate class run for students with disabilities. They have only one special education teacher ― the fourth, as three have quit this year alone ― and one assistant teacher.
“It’s frustrating for us, the parents, but I also understand those teachers,” Lee’s mother EomMyung-hee said.
And like many disabled children, Lee also attends a regular class for core subjects each day. Here, she is usually left to fend for herself. “For about four hours each day, she has to just sit through class listlessly, not understanding anything. It’s almost like torture.”
In such a climate, many parents prefer to send their children to special education schools. But this poses other hurdles. Seoul lacks such schools, with only 29 in the whole city. Of 12,929 students with disabilities in the city, only 4,496 _ or less than 35 percent of them ― are admitted into such schools. This poses additional challenges for the children and their parents. Often kids attend schools in other parts of the city, a physically and mentally laborious task.
Lee Eun-ja, 46, wakes her autistic daughter at 6 a.m. every morning. It takes over an hour for her daughter Ahn Ji-hyun, 18, to get prepared. It’s another 90-minute bus ride until she arrives at her school in Guro-gu, Seoul.
It was in high school that Ahn was finally granted admission to a special needs school, a great relief for Lee, who waited three years. But every day of her first year there began with her crying over having to wake up early to endure the long bus ride to school. “Every morning is a struggle, as I have to fight to wake her up and prepare her for school,” Lee said.
Lee tried to get her into a special needs school in her district, but it was impossible as the school has room for only about 100 students, with about six students in each grade.
The reason Lee endures the daily challenge is because regular schools failed to meet the needs of her daughter. “She had to sit through classes without any help. She cried every day, and I wouldn’t know why because she’s not able to express herself.”
Parents believe the establishment of new special needs schools is long overdue ― the last one opened in 2002. After years-long protests by parents, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) this year vowed to open three more schools in the city by 2019 though the plan is not without opposition from residents who are fearful such institutions would damage their neighborhood image and affect real estate prices. But this time, parents are more hopeful as the budget has passed.
“We are hopeful. But at the same time, this is still not nearly enough as new schools would only have space for about three students in each grade,” Lee said.
Efforts for inclusive education should continue while many parents hope to send their kids to a separate institution to keep their children safe and at ease, many also agree that an inclusive education, if done properly, could be more beneficial.
“To guarantee the educational rights of disabled children, regular schools should also become a safe and inclusive place for these children,” said Kim Chi-hun, the disability policy and research director of Korean Parents’ Network for People with Disabilities. “And the Special Education Promotion Act requires that schools provide full support for children with disabilities to be included in the system.”
He also emphasized the need for more teachers. “The law also stipulates there should be one special education teacher for every four children. Right now, we’re only at 65 percent of that level.”
But the greater problem is that the current education system is overly focused on college preparatory exams and is not fit for children with developmental disabilities. The entire education system needs an overhaul, Kim said, in order to incorporate these children.
“They cannot attend regular schools when the other students don’t acknowledge our kids at all. Even the teachers, I feel, do not want to be bothered by them,” said Kim, mother of Lee Jong-min, 14, who has a severe intellectual disability.
Lee began attending a special needs school in middle school, which takes more than an hour of commute time from home. “During the one-hour bus ride, some students scream, some hurt themselves and some bite others. When they get to school, many of the students are already worn out,” she said. “Even so, this is still better.”