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Students with disabilities in regular classes

Special education policy collaborates to reduce learning delays, but can encourage segregated teaching

Fabio PassosThe 2022 School Census, released earlier this year by the National Institute for Education Studies and Research (INEP), revealed a significant increase in the number of students with special needs enrolled in regular classrooms across early childhood, primary, and secondary education. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of enrollments in early childhood education rose by 67,900. In primary and secondary education, there were respectively 74,200 and 30,200 more enrollments year on year (see the graph on page 19). Yet despite this growth in regular class enrollments, educational inclusion has remained a barrier to students with disabilities.

In 2008, a National Policy on Inclusive Special Education was adopted to ensure that students with disabilities, global development delay, high-ability, and giftedness could access regular schools. That same year, Decree no. 6,571 introduced specialized educational support to assist these students and make educational content more accessible. Economist Maria Micheliana da Costa Silva at the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV), in a study in collaboration with other researchers at the institution, found that this policy has helped to reduce the age-grade gap among students with disabilities, with the most significant impact observed among students with hearing impairments. According to Silva, within this group, educational lag can be diminished by approximately two years. In an analysis of school census data from 2009 to 2016, the study compared program beneficiaries to nonbeneficiaries among students with 13 types of disabilities. “The historical series shows that the program has helped students with visual impairment, low vision, physical and multiple disabilities, autism, giftedness, and other learning challenges to keep up with regular classroom activities,” says Silva.

In another study published in 2019, with funding from FAPESP, Enicéia Gonçalves Mendes, a professor of psychology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), evaluated inclusion policies at public schools in a municipality in São Paulo. Questionnaires were administered to 61 teachers, seven school principals, 65 students in special education, and 67 family members. The survey found that special education, namely classes offered to students with disabilities in separate settings from the rest of the class, segregates the educational processes of students with and without disabilities, creating inequality. The study also found that half of students in special education have not received special education support, and many attend separate special education institutions. Approximately 20% of students with disabilities require special education services. “The remaining students are able to learn alongside their peers in regular classrooms, provided that the quality of education is improved to avoid the need for catch-up interventions,” notes Mendes.

In a survey conducted between 2019 and 2020, involving 3,000 Latin American families who have children with autism, including 1,000 in Brazil, respondents consistently identified school inclusion as the most significant challenge they encounter. Cristiane Silvestre de Paula, a psychology researcher at the Mackenzie Center for Childhood and Adolescence Research and in the Graduate Program in Developmental Disorders at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, was one of the lead authors of the study, concluded in 2020 in a collaboration with the Latin American Autism Network. The survey found that 37% of the 3,000 responding families did not receive any form of healthcare or education support. “The network, established in 2015 by researchers and clinicians from six countries in the region, launched the survey to provide inputs into public policymaking,” explains Silvestre de Paula, who also works at the Specialized Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder (TEA) in the Department of Psychiatry at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). In Brazil, she says, support and inclusion within healthcare and education systems have been more effective for children with Down syndrome than for children with autism. “We found that parent engagement makes a big difference. Around three decades ago, parents organized a grassroots movement to advance inclusion for people with Down syndrome at schools,” she says, noting that the autism advocacy movement in Brazil has also gained significant traction over the past 15 years.

Rodrigo Cunha / Pesquisa Fapesp

Christina May Moran de Brito, a physician at a teaching hospital run by the University of São Paulo School of Medicine (FM-USP), led a FAPESP-funded research project in 2021 to provide recommendations for enhancing the inclusion of people with disabilities within the SUS. Through an extensive literature review on access barriers and enablers, as well as interviews with 31 professionals and 50 individuals with various types of disabilities in Santos and São Paulo, she identified communication gaps as one of the most significant obstacles to inclusion. These gaps include ineffective communication between service users and providers, between healthcare providers and managers, and between different levels of healthcare (primary, secondary, and tertiary). “Poor communication hampers access to services and can undermine the autonomy of people with disabilities,” says Brito, who works in the Rehabilitation Department at Sírio-Libanês Hospital and the São Paulo State Cancer Institute.

According to Silvestre de Paula, Brazilian universities have produced a substantial amount of data on people with disabilities, including diagnostic and intervention tools that could enhance their inclusion in healthcare and education systems. “However, this data has not effectively reached policymakers in a way that it can be effectively applied on a large scale in everyday practice. Healthcare providers themselves encounter challenges in training professionals to implement and expand care protocols in their facilities,” she says.

Strengthening the inclusion of people with disabilities in Brazil’s health system (nº 17/50358-0); Grant Mechanism Research Grant ‒ Public Policies; Principal Investigator Christina May Moran de Brito (USP); Investment R$100,219.16.
2.Evaluation of the school inclusion policy in a municipal context based on the policy cycle approach (nº 17/06129-6); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Enicéia Gonçalves Mendes (UFSCar); Investment R$104,550.20.
3.Trajectory of mental health and use of services among Brazilian and English children/adolescents: Longitudinal follow-up study (nº 18/12747-7); Grant Mechanism Research fellowship abroad; Principal Investigator Cristiane Silvestre de Paula; Investment R$80,947.45.

Scientific articles
ARARIPE, B. et al. Profile of service use and barriers to access to care among Brazilian children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Brain Sci. 2022 Oct. 21;12  (10):1421.
CLEMENTE, K. A. P. et al. Barreiras ao acesso das pessoas com deficiência aos serviços de saúde: Uma revisão de escopo. Revista de Saúde Pública. 56 (64). 2022.
PAULA, C. S. et al. Challenges, priorities, barriers to care, and stigma in families of people with autism: Similarities and differences among six Latin American countries. Autism 24 (8), Nov. 2020.
SALVINI, R. R. et al. Avaliação do impacto do atendimento educacional especializado (AEE) sobre a offset escolar dos alunos da educação especial. Estudos Econômicos. 49 (3), July–Sept. 2019.