Sarah Jane dela Rosa speaks before teachers and school leaders at an Inclusive Education and Disability Training of Trainers for the Divisions of Baybay City, Biliran, and Leyte in Region 8.

At 22 years old, Sarah Jane dela Rosa is still in Grade 5. No, it was not poverty that made her struggle to progress to a higher grade. Sarah has cerebral palsy since birth, and like many children with disabilities (CWD), this meant a whole world of struggles against discrimination and educational barriers for her.

She was first enrolled in a Special Education (SPED) Center at the Doña Juana Elementary School in Quezon City. Sarah recalled that when she moved to a regular classroom, her teacher advised that she be transferred to another school because her teacher was not trained to handle special children. Sarah then moved to a nearby public school with no SPED center where she began being discriminated against and where she realized that “there were experiences in life that were more ‘disabling’ than my actual illness”.

 “I experienced being bullied by other children. They would sometimes pull my hair, spit on me, or throw stuff my way after leaving the classroom”, said Sarah. “I decided to quit school even if I was two months short of completing my Grade 2.”

Sarah stayed at home for a few years until she successfully convinced her parents to send her back to Doña Juana Elementary School, a school with more than 7,000 pupils, because here, “I was at least more understood and cared for,” she said.

“At Doña Juana, I have gradually made it to the top of our class. I topped our exams in almost all subjects. In addition, I have become the class president,” Sarah shared. “My classmates do not only respect me, but they also look up to me as their ‘ate’ (older sister)”.

Not only did Sarah excel academically but also proved she can be a voice that can help bring the vision of inclusive education for children and young people with disabilities to fruition.

At the Inclusive Education Workshop for Department of Education (DepEd) Region 8 in Baybay City, Leyte last month, Sarah shared her experiences to more than a hundred education supervisors, school heads, and receiving teachers of CWDs from the divisions of Baybay City, Biliran, and Leyte Divisions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “Let me tell you that it was only when I studied in a regular classroom that I learned to relate with people. I also learned more and faster, academically, in a regular class than in a SPED class because I was being treated as one of them, and not one with a disability,” Sarah told her audience.

“I can do what a non-CWD person does. When I’m at home. I can do my school homework while helping my parents, just like other children,” Sarah added.

She called on teachers to help find and encourage CWDs, who are being kept in their homes, to “attend school, help them grow, and develop their potentials.”

“It is not enough that, because we have disabilities, we will just stay in the house and be content there. We should go out and explore,” the young speaker said.

In response to Sarah’s talk, Dr Catalina Cordeta, Education Program Supervisor and SPED Education Focal Person for the Division of Biliran, tearfully stated a “commitment to help more and more CWDs have access to education.”

“I promise to make education accessible to children like you, Sarah. This early, I go out encouraging various sectors in my division to also help. I am working with our local government to provide stipend to volunteer SPED teachers. I am soliciting help from others to provide free transport for CWDs,” said Dr Cordeta.

The three-day workshop last November 22-24, which discussed ‘small steps’ and school action plans in mainstreaming CWDs in regular classrooms, was organized by the Basic Education Sector Transformation (BEST) program, a partnership between the governments of Australia and the Philippines aiming to improve quality, access and governance of basic education.

Sarah was also recently supported by the Australian Government to represent the Filipino CWDs to the World Conference of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Melbourne, Australia. This was in line with the Australian Government’s development paradigm integrating people with disabilities in promoting prosperity, reducing poverty and enhancing stability.

Retired DepEd-8 Regional Director Dr Luisa Bautista Yu, who was among the first to promote inclusive education in the region during her time, shared at the workshop that based on the 2010 data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), there were 302,000 Filipino households with members with disabilities, 19% of whom were below 15 years old.

“If this is the number of children who have disabilities, where are they? We should find them,” Dr Yu urged her fellow educators. “Being inclusive means in one regular class, we should find all types of children, with or without disabilities, and that they are fully supported to learn, contribute, and participate in all aspects of the life of the school.”

Dr. Yu stressed the need to mainstream CWDs into regular classes as soon as they are assessed ready for it. Otherwise, like Sarah’s experience, these centers would tend to become a barrier to inclusion by perpetuating a medical model of disability.

In 2009, DepEd issued Department Order No. 72 officially identifying inclusive education as “a strategy for increasing participation rate of children.” It was premised on the fact that “special education in the Philippines has only served two (2) percent of the targeted 2.2 million children with disabilities in the country who live without access to a basic human right: the right to education.”

In support of this directive, inclusive education and disability has become a priority theme that cuts across the entire BEST Program.

The Australian aid development assistance strategy for 2015-2020 specifies that all education policies, goals, targets and indicators must clearly articulate the Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Support to a disability-inclusive education means schools should work towards minimizing the creation of separate pedagogy and services for CWDs.

Today, BEST, together with DepEd, are reviewing the existing policies in the inclusion framework to ensure compliance UNCRPD and in creating curriculum materials that support teachers to have a more inclusive practice. This will also ensure that CWDs are fully supported from birth to adulthood. The program has been implemented since 2013 until 2019 in the National Capital Region, and Regions 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10.

BEST is just one of Australia’s development programs in the Philippines that promote community-driven approaches for good governance, transparency, and accountability in building sustainable communities.

This year, Australia celebrates its 70 years of bilateral relationship with the Philippines through its development programs in education, peace, sustainable livelihood and gender development.

For updates on Australia-Philippines’ #First70Years, visit like Australia in The Philippines on Facebook, and follow the Australian Ambassador on Twitter at @AusAmbPH.