Special Education in Cuba, Equal Opportunity for All
By: Joel Michel Varona
Cuba can boast of tangible achievements in its special education system, which is designed to provide schooling fairly and with equal opportunities.
Educators in Cuba agree that all education should be special, adapted to the individual pace of each student, open to those who need it, and inclusive, embracing differences as positive in a just, solidarity based system.
On the island today, the special education system focuses on solving problems that stem from social needs. There is no intention of channelling ideas into a single direction; an ongoing analysis of education practices is vital, as are theoretical reflections that result from the process of improving the country's education system.
Recently, Havana's international conference center, the Palacio de Convenciones, was the venue for an international conference on autism and inclusion that was attended by 300 delegates from 21 countries.
In an interview with Cubaplus, Santiago Borges, director of the Latin American Reference Centre for Special Education, explained that no human being is “condemned” by the laws of genetics to the impossibility of developing his or her personal worth. That is why it is increasingly irrelevant to talk about “children who are different,” and to focus on disabilities, Borges said.
In Cuba, the concept of inclusion is understood as recognition of the right of every single person to a quality education, independently of any particularities or characteristics that have an impact on the variables of his or her development. Inclusion also means fostering students' integration into society as full human beings in a position to be able to enjoy every possibility offered by that society, and to contribute to improving it.
Beyond assuring education for those who have disabilities, still recognized as students with special educational needs, educators should have a broader objective: to be a part of the country's social life and workforce and to be prepared to contribute to its transformation.
Educational inclusion is not centred on a specific type of school, special or regular, but on the scope of socioeducational objectives involved.
Achievements in Special Education
At this time, Cuba has 12,000 teachers in this system, more than 500 of whom hold master's degrees and 122 of whom hold doctorates in the education sciences, figures that speak to the progress that has been made in this field.
Through cooperation agreements, an additional 400 teachers in other countries have earned their master's degrees.
According to Borges, after 50 years, the country can boast of sustained improvements to the curricula used in its special education system.
“We have withstood more than 50 years of economic, commercial, and financial blockade imposed by the United States, and we have been able to introduce and establish new information and communication technologies for ensuring access by children and adolescents to different types of learning,” he said.
“At this time we have 372 special schools with a teaching staff in excess of 15,700. Having one teacher for every three students is evidence of the State's concern in this sense, and it places us at the same level as developed countries,” he added.
According to Daylin Montiel, the mother of student Diego Escalona, many parents are unaware of autism, “which was our case,” she said. “We never even thought about that possibility, and we tended to think that little Diego had hearing problems, or some other kind of mental condition,” she said.
“As time went by, we began to try to find out what was going with Diego; we were constantly worried about things that were very abnormal for his age,” she added, explaining that he had problems with learning and language, and a lack of interest in playing with other children.
After he was diagnosed with autism, he was enrolled in the Dora Alonso Special School, where “we have see a number of positive results, because when he first came he didn't talk at all; he was very hyperactive, didn't look you in the eye, and didn't know his name was Diego,” Montiel said. “He has improved a lot, but we still have a long way to go,” she added.
“We ask all parents to observe their children and take note of any of these types of difficulties, and ask to for help,” Borges said. “The earlier specialized attention is provided, the more effective it will be.”