Building on her more than twenty years of experience addressing the learning needs of disabled children, Cynthia is developing a model for social integration of handicapped students that relies on the leadership and expertise of teachers.
The New Idea
Recognizing that existing special education programs are doing little to debunk the long-standing stereotypes about disability, Cynthia Duk is advancing an educational model that promotes the integration of disabled students inside and outside the classroom. Unlike other efforts to introduce disabled students into the normal classroom without providing teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to address the students' special learning needs, Cynthia draws on the expertise and resources of trained special education professionals and existing programs. Through her workshops and seminars, Cynthia brings together teams of integration specialists, which include sociologists, civil engineers, and psychologists, to provide training and ongoing support to public elementary school teachers who are responsible for the adaptation of the academic environment to suit challenged students' needs. By working closely with school teachers, principals, administrators, and parent associations to raise awareness about diversity and break down stereotypes about disabilities, Cynthia introduces integration specialists as a new and valuable resource, expanding their role beyond the immediate handicapped community. She is helping communities become more effective and efficient in their use of resources by shifting priorities and properly integrating disabled people, beginning at the elementary school level.
According to the World Health Organization, the disabled constitute as much as 10 percent of Chile's population. Education of handicapped children, which began only in the 1970s, has been a very expensive and ineffective process, relying mostly on the isolation of these children from mainstream education. Although, the Chilean Ministry of Education about twenty years ago launched a progressive integration program, modeled after those developed in the United States and Europe, institutional discrimination and ignorance remain prevalent in public schools. There are now approximately seven hundred fifty Chilean public schools that incorporate some 5,400 disabled students into the classroom, while more than fifty thousand students continue to attend separate educational facilities. While no formal studies or evaluations of these integration experiences have yet been carried out, anecdotal evidence suggests that the results in these schools have been far from positive. For the most part, the schools have failed to adapt the traditional curriculum and teaching practices to meet the needs of disabled students, and efforts to integrate disabled and nondisabled children have also been fraught with difficulties. Teachers do not have the practical tools to facilitate social integration and are often uninformed about the nature of different disabilities. Chilean schools typically fail to frame this process as a component of a broader value set that recognizes and respects diversity. Moreover, the majority of students in Chilean public schools have little to no exposure to their peers with disabilities, a trend that reinforces stereotypes from this formative age onward.
Over the past two decades, Cynthia has been working with teachers, parents, and educational authorities to develop and implement practices aimed at integrating disabled students into the classrooms and into the social fabric of the mainstream. She founded the Hineni Foundation in 1990 to foster collaboration between public elementary schools and special schools for handicapped children, with the objectives of improving acceptance of diversity and making available more and better resources to a larger portion of the population. According to Cynthia's model, teachers and school administrators work with an integration team of sociologists, psychologists, and staff at special schools for the disabled to jointly identify students currently enrolled in those special schools who could most benefit from a transition to a mainstream public school and to develop an integration plan. By collaborating from the preliminary stages, public school teachers receive incidental training on how to serve a special- needs student while maintaining the integrity of the educational experience. The integration specialists gain access to a whole new network through which to offer services, adding relevance to and more broadly disseminating the impact of their work. Simultaneously, regular elementary school students learn to interact with handicapped people in a protected and constructive environment and students in special schools prepare to deal with the challenges of integration into the broader mainstream.
As Cynthia spreads her integration model from the Santiago municipality of Buin, where she originally launched the Hineni Foundation's first school integration project to the rest of Chile and abroad, she has also developed programs to lend technical assistance and training to schools that have either tried without success to integrate disabled students or who are planning to integrate these students through government-led initiatives. Her ultimate goal is to have all the country's schools integrated at a rate of 10 percent handicapped students, reflecting the national population's average breakdown, with constant support from local teams of integration specialists and other partners.
Cynthia's commitment to introducing educational integration as an antidote to discrimination against the disabled can be traced to her own struggles living with a minor disability. Starting at the age of three, she underwent a series of operations to correct a hip problem that had affected her since birth. Because she was in and out of the hospital and in physical therapy for much of her childhood, and because of walking difficulties caused by her hip problem, Cynthia experienced prejudice and social marginalization from an early age. She recalls not being able to participate in gym class and being excluded from the play of her classmates during recess. She had teachers who, either out of pity or ignorance, treated her much differently than the rest of their students. Like most young people in her situation, Cynthia struggled to fit in and worked hard to hide her disability. Despite the stereotypes attached to her physical condition, during her adolescent years Cynthia quickly emerged as a school leader, participating actively in student government and organizing her classmates to engage in volunteer activities in the community. By the time she entered university, she had developed a strong interest in education and psychology and chose to enroll in the then newly-formed Special Education program at the University of Chile.
Despite her problems in school, Cynthia excelled in her studies and graduated with a degree in special education from the University of Chile in 1978. She later founded the Center for Differential Infant Education, which developed early intervention programs for mentally disabled children six-years-old and younger. While working with the youngsters' families, Cynthia witnessed their difficulties in facing and accepting a handicapped child and the ramifications this exclusion had on the child's ability to learn and flourish. She saw that the children tended to be treated as hopeless or overprotected to an extent that they were unable to develop necessary social or academic skills. It was within this context that she began to develop the Center's initiatives to stimulate acceptance and integration of these children into their families.
Intent on going beyond the familial integration that she was promoting at the Center, Cynthia joined a pilot project in educational integration at the Sumalao Nursery School in 1983. By training teachers and families in how to address the special needs of children with mental disabilities, Cynthia worked with a team to successfully incorporate eight children with Down's Syndrome into a student population of seventy. She also began to feel a tension between her growing commitment to educational integration and her continued work at the Center, which was more clinical and essentially segregated mentally-disabled infants and toddlers from their nondisabled peers. In 1985, she left the Center to work full-time at Sumalao, where she soon assumed directorship and played a lead role in positioning the school as a model for educational integration in Chile.
In 1987, the educational model pioneered at Sumalao was extended to the neighboring Altamira Elementary School, so that students could continue to benefit from integrated learning after nursery school. When the partnership with Altamira expired in 1991, Cynthia and her colleagues received authorization from the Ministry of Education to create the Sumalao Elementary School, which operated with great results but economic difficulties until it was closed by its Board of Directors in 1995.
In 1990, Cynthia and a group of parents and professionals from Sumalao created the Hineni Foundation as a way to spread that school's successful integration model to other institutions. Today, Hineni offers individual academic support for children with disabilities, teacher training, consulting to other educational institutions, and family support programs, all around the issue of integration.