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Online Symposium Report: Something's Strange: Special Needs Education in Japan

How should we deal with children who have special needs such as those with intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities? How can we create an environment for children like this whereby they can play freely and learn with a sense of security?

CRN hosted an online symposium under the theme of "Something's Strange: Special Needs Education in Japan." The details of the symposium are shown below. We had a thorough discussion on the issues of special needs education and possible solutions from different standpoints including parents of children with disabilities as well as researchers, teachers, and private service providers. We will report on the outcome of our discussion.

[Date&Time] Saturday, February 23, 2019 10:00am-12:00pm
Chairperson: Yoichi Sakakihara, Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute, and Professor Emeritus at Ochanomizu University
Symposiasts: Akemi Akiyama, Director of Mirai Kyoshitsu, a Study Group on Special Needs Education, and former principal of a public elementary school
Masahiro Oba, Director of Yoko Fukushi Kai, a social welfare corporation
Kenji Abe, Benesse Corporation
Mitsuya Tazaki, parent of a child with Down's syndrome, and a member of Tokyo Inclusive Education Project Committee
Kotomi Yoshitake, parent of a child with severe motor and intellectual disabilities
Moderator: Kazuyoshi Koizumi, Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute, and a researcher at CRN
[Organizer] Child Research Net (CRN)
[Supporter] Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute
Japan's inclusive education is becoming seriously hollow

In this symposium, six symposiasts including the chair raised the issues of special needs education from their respective standpoints. The most serious issue shared among them was the hollow situation of inclusive education.
Inclusive education means education based on a philosophy that values the ways of living and learning with various people and provides support for each child according to their characteristics, regardless of whether they have disabilities or not. Inclusive education is also stated and internationally promoted as one of the important factors to realize an inclusive society in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (hereinafter, the "CRPD"), which Japan ratified in 2014. However, all symposiasts pointed out that inclusive education is not properly understood in Japan.

For example, Mr. Masahiro Oba, Principal of Taiyo-no-ko Hoikuen (daycare center), stated "The development of children takes place in various ways. Fundamentally, all types of children should be subject to inclusive education. However, the perception that inclusive education is designed for children with disabilities has become widespread among Japanese people. As a result, people tend to focus only on the categories of children with or without disabilities."

This misunderstanding of inclusive education is persistent even among educational administrators; therefore, it is difficult to proceed with improvements in the national education system. The issue of inclusive education was also discussed by Mr. Mitsuya Tazaki and Ms. Kotomi Yoshitake. Their children have disabilities and attend regular classes at local elementary schools. Mr. Tazaki said "The CRPD is based on the 'social model' of disability. This concept looks at ways of removing various disadvantages suffered by persons with disabilities by the entire society. Although Japan ratified the CRPD, it seems that the government's attitude is returning to the "medical model" of disability, in which persons with disabilities are obliged to overcome disadvantages by themselves with special needs education."

Ms. Yoshitake said, "My daughter is warmly welcomed and supported by her peers and their parents in a regular class. In contrast, the local Board of Education in my community was reluctant to approve admission of my daughter to a regular class. It seems to me that there is a major gap in awareness between citizens and the government."

Mr. Kenji Abe, who is in charge of research and development activities at Benesse Corporation to develop learning services for various types of children, explained the societal issues of inclusion. "Nowadays, the technologies of ICT devices and web accessibility are rapidly developing. We believe that these technologies can improve and enhance the learning environment for all types of children regardless of their needs. However, the utilization of such technologies in learning is not sufficiently addressed. The most important issue is that authorized textbooks are converted to large-print textbooks and DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) textbooks by volunteers, not by the government. It is necessary to establish a learning environment accessible to all types of individuals, including learning services offered by local libraries and the private sector."

Both "Sharing of experiences in the same place" and "Individual support" are necessary to realize inclusive education

In the latter part of the symposium, measures to improve the current conditions of Japan's inclusive education were discussed from the standpoints of schools and the government. First of all, we will explain the situation at schools.

Ms. Akemi Akiyama, the director of Mirai Kyoshitsu at Study Group on Special Needs Education, insisted on the necessity for leadership by managerial staff in changing the current conditions prevailing in schools. She explained the initiatives of inclusive education promoted by herself as the principal of a public primary school, which has a large-scale class for special needs education. One of these initiatives is the reform of school systems to allow all children to be included in regular classes. "In our school curriculum, we arrange for children with disabilities to learn in a separate classroom with individual support or in a regular class with the support of helpers according to their characteristics. However, we make sure that all children attend homeroom classes and take a lunch break to share daily experiences in the same place."

It is a fundamental concept of inclusive education to ensure that children with and without disabilities learn and spend time together and deepen their interactions. However, in Japan, inclusive education is often regarded as the "sharing of school premises and buildings." Director Oba pointed out this issue and explained that a daycare center run by him was once renovated to facilitate interactions among children regardless of their needs. He said "In the newly renovated facility, all childcare workers came to recognize the importance of accessibility and comfort for each child and strove to provide the best possible individual support for them in learning. This is because the hard aspect (i.e. the improved learning environment) led to enrichment of the soft aspect (i.e., the raised awareness of childcare workers). I believe that it is important to create a place where children can interact freely, and then, find the best way through trial and error to provide inclusive education for them."

The cases of Directors Akiyama and Oba have a common factor which is the combination of the "sharing of experiences in the same place" and the "individual support." Mr. Yoichi Sakakihara, the director of CRN and the moderator of this symposium, said, "The fundamental objective of inclusive education is inclusion. To realize this, it is necessary to ensure the provision of individual support according to the characteristics of each child, as well as the sharing of experiences in the same place."

Desire to disseminate the effects of inclusive education through society

For the improvement of government measures, we received various suggestions from the symposiasts.

Mr. Tazaki pointed out the necessity for national debates. He said "In the current education system in Japan, the School Education Act and the Order for Enforcement of the said act take precedence over the CRPD. However, basically, international conventions should be ranked higher than domestic laws and government ordinances. It is necessary to provide the public with opportunities for fundamental discussions on the CRPD, legal systems, and other administrative issues. It may take time, but the accumulation of such efforts will lead to successful improvements in the current education system."

Mr. Abe explained, "Private-sector businesses can take action faster than government bodies. Using this advantage, they should enhance learning support services, which may influence the attitude of the government."

Building a consensus on the effects of inclusive education is also considered to be advantageous in influencing the government. First of all, Director Sakakihara explained his belief that inclusive education enhances the development of children, based on his own clinical experiences as a pediatrician and the actual cases of overseas medical studies. He noted, as one of the examples, "There are some reported cases where children with developmental disabilities improved their social and language skills through interaction with their peers in a regular class."

Director Akiyama also mentioned "In a class for special needs education, children are stimulated only by teachers, while in a regular class, they can receive various stimuli from their peers. I have seen numerous children with disabilities who enhanced their learning skills with such stimuli. In addition, there are children without disabilities who recognized the diversity of individuals through interactions with children with disabilities."

Ms. Yoshitake insisted "There are some classmates who feel comfortable with my daughter or rely on her in her class. I feel that inclusive education enriches the entire class. I hope that more and more people will come to be aware of this positive effect from inclusive education."

During the online symposium, we received numerous comments from the viewers. One viewer who runs a cram school said "I realized that children with disabilities could achieve higher learning outcomes when they learn together with children without disabilities in the same class." This observation confirms the positive effect of inclusive education.

The symposium closed with the words of Director Sakakihara: "Let's think about the significance of sharing experiences among different types of children!" It is our hope that today's discussions will help people gain understanding and interest in inclusive education.
CRN plans to publish further issues and discussions to realize an inclusive society. Keep your eyes on us!

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