Project COMUNICA: Removing Barriers for Children with Special Needs in Paraguay
Paraguay, a small country in the heart of south America, has come a long way since the drafting of its Inclusive Education Law N.° 5.136 in 2013. However, like most countries, it still has a long way to go for individuals with disabilities. Utilizing the power of technology is an important part of the plan.
In Paraguay, it is estimated that only 36% of people with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 18 attend an educational establishment. The condition of disability constitutes an important factor of exclusion from the educational system. It is estimated that 83% of the population has not passed six years of basic school education and only 2% have reach higher education. According to the 2030 National Development Plan, the illiteracy rate in the population with disabilities in this country is 43%. Many children with disabilities do not go to school because schools are not prepared to cater for their needs or because their parents prefer to keep them at home. Paraguay has long rooted social inequalities and education disadvantages which have been further exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law N.° 5.136, aims to make the national educational system more inclusive, emphasizing removing the barriers that limit learning and participation of all students regardless of their circumstances. In Paraguay, the approach towards inclusive education began with the opening of special schools in which the specific needs of children with disabilities would be better addressed. The aforementioned law N.° 5.136 sought to transform the traditional special school scheme by incorporating a more inclusive view, ensuring access and proper provision to children with special needs in mainstream education. Although there was an inclusive law, educators found its implementation very challenging mostly due to lack of guidance. Therefore, in 2018, a joint project between the Paraguayan government, NGO’s specialized in disabilities, and international advisors created the Guidelines for Inclusive Education as an official document that outlines principles and strategies for the implementation of the Inclusive Education Law to fill this gap.
The current approach to inclusion in Paraguay is not restricted to the scope of disability and is considered as an integrative approach to work in overcoming all forms of discrimination and exclusion. After this law came into effect no new special schools were opened and the ones that existed were to be gradually transformed into inclusion support centres, which will provide resources and training on best provision to mainstream schools. The extent to which this scheme is providing results is yet to be made public.
In 2015, the National Fund for Public Investment and Development and the Fund for Excellence in Education and Research established the incorporation of ICTs in the educational system as a priority. The aim was to consolidate an educational portal with an online learning platform, provide technological infrastructure to educational centres and the development of ICT training programs aimed at teachers. The idea of using technology as a crucial tool to improve access and quality in education is slowly gaining more importance in this country, although funding remains the biggest barrier.
In 2019, the Universidad Catolica Research team, along with Teleton ( NGO that supports children with disabilities in all areas of their lives) and the Coordinator of the Rights for Children and Adolescents developed a Project called COMUNICA (communicate). The Project consisted in the first open Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) laboratory. Through the use of tablets, notebooks and pictograms this lab seeks to facilitate the communication of children with disabilities. These resources are then allocated to children for their use at home or at school in order to help them achieve more fluid communication and to promote autonomy.
The project, although done in a small scale, has shown positive results within the participating families and the children are showing improvements in their literacy and communication skills. Families, caretakers, and educators are welcome to use the lab and access all resources which empowers the entire community. “Parents are starting to feel more confident and safe to leave their children in the school - before they used to be accompanying their children throughout the school day” commented one of the facilitators of the program.
The preliminary results of the project demonstrate the importance of motivating and empowering all actors in this context and facilitating their work through access to technology. By accessing the lab, educators and parents are able to make use of the resources in situ and also prepare pedagogical materials to use at home or at school, for e.g. visual timetables and pictograms to aid communication in these contexts. Also through the training of teachers in AAC, and the use of these technical aids in daily routines, it was shown that children were making significant progress.
Stakeholders in the education field are now starting to believe in the power of technology to support children with special needs in Paraguay and the role technology can play in giving children with disabilities a better quality of life. This project certainly has the potential to be used in a larger scale since it uses materials that can be easily made at home or school and also through the use of devices such as computers or iPads which hopefully soon more and more schools will have access to. The project has proven to break down barriers and allow children to access more opportunities. Up until last year the project was being held exclusively at Teleton but hopefully with time and more support from the government, more communication labs will be funded and resources will be allocated to more schools and homes.
While Paraguay might still be a long way from achieving the desired outcomes for children with special needs, this kind of project brings hope and awakens other actors in the field to continue contributing to improving the lives of such a neglected part of our society.
For teachers and policymakers that are lucky enough to study abroad, there is a bigger responsibility to go back home and advocate for those that need the most. Inclusion will always be a challenging path to immerse yourself in, but now, more than ever, it seems that opting for a more equal, inclusive education should be of paramount importance for policymakers and different education stakeholders. Technology can be one great equalizer for students with disabilities in countries big and small.