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Alumnus working to promote inclusive development in Bhutan’s school system

Posted: 29 November 2022

Bhutan, Disability, Impact, Inclusion,

Australia Awards alumnus Pema Chhogyel is a Deputy Chief Program Officer at the Special Education Division of the Department of School Education in Bhutan’s Ministry of Education. Pema received an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2015 to complete a Master of Education (Special Education) from Flinders University. Since his return to Bhutan in 2016, he has been working in the Special Education Division. As a professional with vision impairment himself, Pema continues to promote inclusive development in schools and advocate for people with disability in society.

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we met with Pema to learn more about his contribution to inclusive development.

Bhutan is undergoing many reforms as part of the civil service transformation endeavours. As a civil servant working in the Ministry of Education, what changes have you witnessed in your Ministry and what are some of the changes you wish for as part of these transformation initiatives?

Disability inclusive education and development are new and emerging approaches worldwide. With the aim of ensuring equitable access, opportunity and quality education for all learners (including for children with disability) in Bhutan, inclusive education is acknowledged as one of the essential programs under Bhutan’s educational reforms. I would always recommend and wish for greater priority in enhancing inclusive education in Bhutan with adequate resource allocation, capacity building and institutionalisation of services so that all learners, including those with diverse needs, benefit.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. However, efforts towards achieving this goal have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. What challenges in achieving this outcome has the Ministry faced due to the pandemic?

During the pandemic, providing quality and appropriate educational support to learners with disability was a big challenge. Many children with disability from low-income households did not have devices to access online teaching learning materials and basic information. They had to depend on their parents or other family members to use their mobile devices, and even wait until late evenings to access these when the parents or family members returned home from work. Because these children belonged to families from low economic backgrounds, buying a reliable learning device itself was a challenge. Accessing TV lesson broadcasts was also difficult because those living in rural areas did not have televisions or connectivity. Delivering customised learning materials, home interventions and individual support when needed was difficult during the pandemic. Ensuring proper safety, food security, hygiene, health and care were also difficult. Providing continuity of education and working towards productive livelihoods has been a challenge in the past two years.

What have been your contributions to ensuring inclusive education for all, including any voluntary contributions outside your official responsibilities?

Being one of the pioneers in achieving higher education as a person with vision impairment in Bhutan, I always advocate for my fellow colleagues with disability to increase their determination and resilience in life, decision-making, participation and leadership. I am a co-founder of the Disabled People’s Organization of Bhutan and a current board member. I have participated in online discussions, forums, capacity building programs, policy dialogues, project concepts and advocacy regarding people with disability in Bhutan and internationally. In October this year, I organised and led a hybrid side event for champions and promoters of the Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities during the High-level Intergovernmental Meeting on the Final Review of the Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities, 2013–2022 in Jakarta, Indonesia, on behalf of civil society organisations from Asia and the Pacific regions.

Pema continues to advocate for people of disability to increase their determination and resilience in life.

This year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities theme is about transformational solutions for inclusive development using innovation and technology. How is your Ministry leveraging technology to make education accessible and equitable for students, including special education needs students?

The Ministry of Education, through government and aid projects, is in the process of establishing Inclusive and Special Education Resource Centres in all-inclusive schools. The resource centres will be equipped with computers, print facilities, internet connectivity, customised learning materials, smart TVs and assistive devices. The Ministry will also develop sensory integration rooms for children with higher difficulties to provide need-based interventions and remedial programs. The students with disability will be provided with tablet devices to create greater access and convenience in their learning. These measures will also prepare the learners for online learning systems should there be any emergency lockdowns. The Ministry is also in the process of procuring and supplying high-end printer-embossers and high-tech vocational equipment for learners with disability.

Have you been able to apply your knowledge and skills gained from your Australian education and experience upon returning home? How has the Australia Awards Scholarship benefited you?

The Australia Awards Scholarship has immensely benefited me to exhibit myself as a person with more competence, qualifications and confidence in my profession. It has enabled me to participate in policy review and developments with greater knowledge, vision and perspective. My course topics enable me to design strategic action plans and programs to enhance inclusive education in Bhutan. I now participate in disability awareness and advocacy with a broader outlook, experience and openness through the exposure gained from my Scholarship. I am able to design more quality programs, training packages and education materials with the knowledge, content and ideas I learnt from my studies.

As a member of Australia Awards – South Asia & Mongolia’s Alumni Disability Advisory Group, what are some of the key initiatives the group is working on and what are your contributions?

As a member of the Alumni Disability Advisory Group from Bhutan, I advocate on the scope, process and benefits of Australia Awards Scholarships. I also work towards expanding Scholarship opportunities for people with disability. I work on disseminating information about the Australia Awards Scholarship, timelines and requirements. I advocate on making the English proficiency test more accessible for people with disability by conversing with the coordinating agencies and test centres, and advising individual applicants when necessary. I also plan to promote the need for Scholarships for people with disability in vocational and higher education so that we receive quality learning and experiences. I participate in online discussions, forums, planning and information updates on disability education and services.

Lastly, what is your message to Bhutanese citizens and your fellow alumni for International Day of Persons with Disabilities?

Embrace diversity and work hard. Living with an open mindset and positive vision is always the best. Lead ahead and speak ahead; doing with and for all brings successes.