Barriers to education for disabled students start with barriers in society. Large pupil: teacher ratios and small classrooms reduce accessibility. Instruments for diagnosis are not in place and, as a result, students with learning difficulties or 'invisible' disabilities such as dyslexia or mental impairments often end up being labelled as stupid and drop out. The education system is strongly centralized with a rigid curriculum and inflexible learning outcomes that emphasize academic achievement, as opposed to all-round development. As a result, teachers are less flexible and pay less attention to individual learning needs.
Local NGOs tend to establish special schools, rather than develop integrated programs. Assistive technologies they introduce may not be scalable and render learners dependent on technologies that their families or future employers cannot afford. The pre-existence of a segregated education system makes it more difficult to achieve inclusive education later. Unfortunately, activities of specialized NGOs give other organisations an excuse not to focus on disabled learners, sustaining an old-fashioned, medical approach to disabilities.
There are socio-economic barriers as well. Many Cambodian parents decide not to send their disabled children to school. They consider education primarily as a way to acquire wealth and wrongly believe that the first few years of education matter less than the next ones. As a consequence, they tend to invest all their resources in the education of one child, rather than in an equitable education for all their children. Moreover, employment opportunities are scarce as employers are not encouraged to hire disabled people. Until 2008 disabled people in Cambodia were even excluded from teaching.
This is enhanced by social discrimination. Buddhist culture considers a disability as bad karma and a punishment for faults committed in a previous life (Krousar Thmey 2010 Annual Report). This leads to social discrimination and instils a sense of complacency in disabled people and their environment. Online education in general still faces tough cultural challenges. Online learning is often considered as second-rate education in a society where education is traditionally associated with teacher instruction and memorisation. Positive role models are important in changing attitudes and behaviour, as well as systems of quality assurance for online education.
In 2012 the Cambodian National Assembly decided to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). As the Convention enters into force on 19 January 2013, it will legally bind the government to work on inclusive education.
Ratification fuels expectations that the Cambodian government will adopt a social and universal approach to disabilities, in alignment with the WHO’s position. Developing course and materials with accessibility and flexibility in mind benefit all learners, as these cater to a variety in learning styles, learning speeds and impairments.
Disabled learners may benefit from more online learning as they can study at their own pace at home. Digital learning materials are usually more flexible as font sizes and types, background colours and format can be changed and assistive technologies used. Online learning allows more control on communication and disclosure. However, online learning may also increase barriers, due to badly designed software and learning materials, or due to a lack of personal support.
In Cambodia 'blended' approaches with supporting regional centres, located in schools or centres for teacher education, that complement online activities and function as places for tutor assistance and peer support, could be explored. A model applied for some time, among others, in Brazil. Online learning would expand educational opportunities for people outside the capital, deploy scarce human resources more efficiently and allow teachers to follow in-service training without having to leave their schools. The Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) programme is a good example of benefiting from the advantages of online learning to teacher education in developing countries.
Changes in legislation do not automatically lead to improvements in accessibility. The government needs to invest in human capital for specialised support services and make assistive technology more widely available, for example through loan kits. Principles of universal design and awareness of disabilities should be embedded in general teacher education. Most importantly, disabled people need to be convinced that they as well can have dreams and aspirations, and that they can achieve them as well, with the right support.
Online learning can contribute to an inclusive learning environment by providing a platform for creating and sharing accessible learning materials, creating opportunities for scaling up pre-service and in-service teacher education, allowing learners to study in a more flexible way and opening up access to international courses.