Michelle Proyer and Siriparn Sriwanyong:Exploring Cultures of Exclusion of Children with Disabilities in Greater Bangkok

Abstract: This paper offers the opportunity to glimpse beyond the scenes of an international research collaboration between Austria and Thailand. The underlying project (CLASDISA) aimed to depict what children with disabilities’ educational everyday lives are like in Bangkok by interviewing children, their parents and teachers. The paper offers insights into the negotiation of a common ground regarding research principles as well as the mutual and participatory development of next steps in research and analysis. By developing a culture-specific approach to answering questions related to the inclusion and exclusion of children with disabilities in education, well established principles around the (western based) perception of disability could be challenged and developed further. The paper will give accounts of our endeavor to seek out culture-specific reasons for exclusion of children with disabilities from mainstream education. Thus, the paper combines a meta-perspective on the research process and some insights into the findings of the research with regards to the question what leads to discrimination and exclusion. This being only two areas of interest that proofed to be far harder to understand than expected. Thereby the submission aims at underlining the need to consider local contexts when developing research tools for exploring cultural impacts on the (educational) environments of persons with disabilities. As well as pointing to the advantages of involving experiences from international research to rethink local conditions and broadening ones perspectives on the manifold environmental realms of persons with disabilities. One of the approaches to get an idea of where the roots of exclusion lie within the researched area, was the engagement in local practices such as the supposedly obvious process of chatting (Thai: kui) in all its facets. Thereby the submission aims at highlighting the need to consider local contexts when developing research tools for exploring cultural impacts on the (educational) environments of persons with disabilities.  As well as pointing to the advantages of involving experiences from international research to rethink local conditions and broadening ones perspectives on the manifold environmental realms of persons with disabilities. The latter representing only one of the assets of international research in the field of special needs and inclusive education.

Stichworte: International research collaboration, culture and disability, inclusion in education in international perspective


  1. Introduction
  2. Approaching the Field and Methodology
  3. From Doing International Research to Engaging in International Research
  4. Questioning preconcepts, celebrating and engaging in exchange
  5. Enabling Transcultural Research Accounts – The Way Ahead
  6. References

1. Introduction

This paper follows two goals: Firstly, it attempts to give insights into an intercultural - or even more so a transcultural  - learning process in a large-scale comparative project in the field of special needs and inclusive education. Secondly, it aims to introduce findings on the character and level of exclusion of children with disabilities at primary school-age from education in Bangkok generated within the context of the process referred to under the first goal. A process that is to underline the importance of sensitivity in understanding and assessing environments of children with disabilities beyond – constructed or thought - national borders.
As members of an international comparative research project, CLASDISA, we - the authors of this paper - collaborated in order to learn about the educational environments of children with disabilities at primary school age in Thailand’s capital and add to a comparison of that data on a larger project-scale as two more cities, Vienna and Addis Ababa, were involved in the project. The latter will not be subject to this paper as the comparison is still ongoing. The first author acted as coordinator of research activities in Bangkok and the second author was coordinating the Thai research team consisting of another senior researcher and two research assistants. In Addis Ababa a similar structure was applied and in Austria a team of six people represented the core team of the project.
The ‘environment’ in the context of educational environments of the children is at the core of the project and to be understood as promoted in the WHO’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health’s (ICF; WHO 2001) ‘environmental factors’. Details on the ICF’s layout are manifold and broadly available (e.g. Üstün et al. 2001; Chapireau, 2005) and will not be elaborated further at this point. Nevertheless, it needs to be clarified that promoting a bio-psycho-social approach to disability, the ICF refrains from linking success or failure in education and other areas of life to the medical aspect of disability. At the core of the interest of environmental factors are ‘barriers’ and ‘facilitators’ that enable or hinder ‘participation’ and ‘activity’. A notion very close to that of the social model of disability (Shakespeare 2005) according to which the environment ‘causes’ a person to experience disability through e.g. a missing ramp. Drawing from this approach, CLASDISA focused on getting first-hand information on enabling and hindering factors for children with disabilities in Bangkok, Vienna and Addis Ababa. Thus children themselves, their parents or carers as well as teachers and other educational experts were approached to share their opinion both in the course of interviews or filling in questionnaires. Insights into empirical findings will be restricted to qualitative findings in this contribution.

2. Approaching the Field and Methodology

A thorough desk-research on the deeper meaning of the ICF, criticism against it and a review of studies in the field of comparative research in special needs and inclusive education paved the way to a preparatory visit of the research coordinator to Bangkok in 2010.
Promoting a universal pattern in alignment with a bio-psycho-social understanding of disabilities, the ICF proved to be deficient in many ways, e.g. in terms of issues related to translation (as described by Üstün et al., 2001) or its lack to consider socio-economic aspects as relevant to health (Hirschberg, 2009; Proyer, 2012). Aims to understand and identify relevant influences on the educational environments in a different country and even more so across countries soon proved to be in need of a different, more open approach. Even well-prepared and among the transcultural team of researchers discussed methods, such as interview guidelines, depicted undeniable potential for misunderstandings right away. First attempts at interviews of children with disabilities, their parents and teachers during the preparatory phase (1 month) and an initial phase of field research (3 months in 2010/2011) at different schools all over Bangkok and its suburbs lead to a number of unanswered questions and highlighted gaps in communication between different research training traditions. To give just one example: One of the questions in the questionnaires asked people to rate values according to their importance in teaching. Translated into Thai, the term only has a meaning in relation to the ‘value’ of money, thus does not make sense in relation to prioritizing learning outcomes. This implied that the question had to be rephrased and explained in the Thai version of the questionnaire.
The research applied Grounded Theory and therefore enabled flexible developments during different phases of field research, such as follow-up interviews. CLASDISA’s aim was to shed light on factors that have an impact (in terms of barriers of facilitators; WHO, 2001 and 2007) on the educational environments of children with disabilities at primary school age in urban/metropolitan settings. By applying both a Mixed Methods Approach (Creswell, & Plano Clark, 2007) and Grounded Theory methodologies (Glaser, & Strauss, 1967/1995/1999/ 2008; Urquhart, 2013) it was designed to learn from experts in the field. Next to a set of two questionnaires the main focus of the study was collecting qualitative data. Interviewees in Bangkok foremostly included children with different disabilities, their legal guardians and teachers. The sample was to be organized according to a case study design (Yin, 2009). Further experts’ opinions were collected to complete and saturate (Urquhart, 2013) the data set. The qualitative part of data collection employed the following kinds of sources: structured, semi-structured, narrative as well as experimental interviews, development documentation such as IEPs (Individualized Education Plans where available), related Thai policy papers, classroom observations and appraisals of school compounds. The last two were done by the research coordinator and one out of four research assistants accompanying on the respective day. Filling in the same standardized form (that leaves space for personalized observations), interesting differences became immediate.
Instead of sticking to a predetermined research plan, the transnational research team in Thailand immediately learned the necessity to engage in and listen to stories of those confronted with all sorts of restrictions, challenges as well as opportunities associated with disabilities every day. It proved to be a crucial aspect in the data in relation to levels of information and coping. To give only one example: Some of the parents of children with disabilities who had been interviewed to learn about their children’s access to education shared that they had to stay in the school premises after taking their children to school. This was due to the fact that they were not able to take on jobs as they were in charge of caring for their children and were unable to travel to a work place. The latter is due to the precarious traffic situation and the fact that parents had to be back in time to pick their children up. While others were in charge of supporting their children both academically and physically in class since there was a lack in staff or their children needed individual support. In this way parents talk to teachers and other parents on a daily basis, sometimes for extended periods. This enables a number of processes: coping, understanding, repeated reconfirmation, informal information exchange etc. The decisions to engage in this pivotal form of local exchange for data generation lead to more lively accounts of cultural impact on the lives of children with disabilities in Greater Bangkok beyond mere interview data. The supposedly obvious process of chatting (also meaning: conversing, gossiping, talking, confabulating, or discussing, Thai: คุย, kui) in all its facets proved to be one of the core issues in the data collected. The importance of chatting in Thai society does not merely denote the passing of information among friends or colleagues. It is a way to tie a close relationship with partners.  Chatting can occur in formal or informal situations. In formal occasions, such as during a formal meeting, chatting can occur and is considered normal among speakers no matter how serious the agenda is.  Another example, during the religious ceremonious functions, attendants can chat as a way to exchange their beliefs or experiences in their daily life.  In our research, most parents indicated that they chatted with the teachers in the school meetings or conferences in order to get to acquaint each other better, and to create more trust in each other’s eyes. It is very important to chat with the school teachers or the principals in order to learn more about the children, activities in classes, care in home, house chores and homework expected of children to perform, etc. Therefore, chatting in Thai society is a way to relay information and to create trust and to glue relationship among the talkers. The decisions to engage in this pivotal form of local exchange for data generation and even among the research team led to more lively accounts of cultural impact on the lives of children with disabilities in Bangkok beyond mere answers to interview questions or questionnaires. Examples of this process and cultural factors identified will be given.
Challenges in intercultural field-work have been discussed in many academic disciplines ranging from Anthropology to Geography. The topics also cover a wide variety and include among others:
•             Language related issues, such as research in or with persons using nonnative languages (Winchatz, 2006) or with translated material both qualitative (Temple, & Young, 2004) and quantitative (Van de Vijver, & Leung, 1997).
•             The impact of (perceived) colonialism or what is left of it or keeps stuck in our current research training on recent research activities (Garot, 2014).
•             The lack of opportunities to prepare for research activities (Vallaster, 2000) due to restricted research budgets or tight schedules.
All these challenges sound very familiar and can be said to be characteristic of the early stages among the transcultural team in Thailand of the CLASDISA project. In the beginning, the situation between the coordinating researcher from the University of Vienna and her four research assistants from Srinakharinwirot University, Bangkok, can be described as distant. One of the main reasons stemmed from the paradox situation of the research coordinator being younger than the other members and – at that time - having a lower level of education than two of the research assistants who held PhDs and were members of the Department of Special Education. An instant that is very unusual in Thai society (Proyer, Sriwanyong, & Saksiriphol, 2014).
One factor that enhanced collaboration right from the beginning was the mutual acknowledgement of the lack of paying tribute to research assistants as described by Turner (2010). Turner refers to them as ‘Ghost Writers’ (ibid., 207) who act in multiple roles and have a strong impact on the outcome of  the research process. They enable access to the field, act as translators and supporters in many areas of everyday life in an unfamiliar cultural setting for the foreign researchers. The research coordinator aimed at involving the assistants who made up the Thai research team at all levels at an early stage in the collaboration. As Turner  points out “[w]e need to stop ignoring the positionality and subjectivity of research assistants/ interpreters in social science qualitative fieldwork, as these factors influence numerous relationships, negotiations and differential access to interviewees and resources.” (2010, 216) This can be described as a rather time-consuming process that will be elaborated according to main research activities hereafter.
During four core phases in the field in Greater Bangkok lasting from 5 weeks to three months between 2010 and 2012 (and six additional shorter exchange visits as of January 2014 in either Bangkok or Vienna) main responsibilities of the research assistants, or better co-researchers, included:
•             Coordination of school visits and communication with contact persons at more than 20 (educational) institutions in and around Bangkok.
•             Scheduling of Interviews and follow-up interviews conduction with children with disabilities, their parents/legal guardians/caregivers and teachers as well as additional experts from the areas education and/or disabilities. These included policy makers, representatives of DPOs, monks, representatives of orphanages and parents’ self-help groups. The total number of interviews ranging up to 186.
•             The Coordination of collection of two sets of questionnaires (more than 220) and support of parents and teachers filling those in in their completion. 
•             Translation of data and data collection instruments: As most of the data was collected in Thai, materials had to be translated from Thai into English or vice versa.  
There is not much of an argument about the fact that making others aware of what can be done to tackle exclusion of persons with disabilities creates a need for thorough analysis of given environments (Chapireau, 2005; WHO, 2001 and 2007). These can be influenced by an endless number of aspects. The question that arises is what we actually define as ‘environment’. Is it what an international classification, such as the ICF, defines as made up by environmental factors that can be measured on a universal scale? This question is even more pressing if one engages in the endeavor of learning from and about another cultural context. This does not come at a low cost for any of the members involved. Turner (2010) interviewed research assistants of graduate students engaged intercultural, cross-cultural research in order to learn what they would wish from future researchers. One of the core findings was that they wished for them not to be arrogant. So one of the prices the first author of this piece acknowledging that others were and would remain experts of Thai culture and that collaboration was the key to the success of the project.

3. From Doing International Research to Engaging in International Research

So why actually engage in cross-cultural research activities at all? At the core of the following argument lies the belief that cross-cultural research on ‘inclusive’ education considering historical and local conditions makes perfect sense (Artiles, & Dyson, 2005). By exchanging and reflecting on what seems to be given for one person familiar to a certain context, both parties are to benefit as they realize shortcomings in considering certain aspects and questioning preconceived ideas. Within our research cooperation this was realized by a high level of engagement. The mere activities of ‘listening’ and ‘talking’ are at the core of this process as will be elaborated hereafter.
Florian et al. (2006) and many other authors describe the challenges of comparing the educational situation of children with disabilities across nations. Even within one and the same country (e.g. Switzerland), the decision about the educational opportunities of a child with disability might depend on the district they are born in. More often than not reasons for this stem from the fact that children’s disabilities are classified according to highly differing standards. What might be considered as ADHD in one country might be classified as social-emotional behavior problems in another reason. In order to tackle these challenge, the WHO developed a self-proclaimed universally applicable coding-tool that allows the creation of so-called functional profiles for every human being (ICF, 2001). A specialized version for children and youth has been published in 2007 (ICF-CY). Restrictions of the tool have been acknowledged (e.g. Üstün et al., 2001) and there are efforts to improve the measure. One of the questions that remains unanswered in this context – and as has to be acknowledged has been discussed widely among scholars – is whether such a tool can ever replace thorough field studies. As these studies enable a holistic consideration of local conditions as developed by a team of engaged researchers the question seems to be an easy one. Even if solutions to challenges related to e.g. language and translations such as described by Üstün et al. (2001) have been solved, the answer seems to be a clear “No!”
Experiences as gathered in the research project presented above can never be substituted by applying a standardized tool. This holds especially true as it would delimit the processes of ‘talking’ and ‘listening’ to each other. Processes that have been identified as being at the core of the mutual learning process between the researchers from Bangkok and the coordinator from Vienna. These can be referred to as pivotal in preventing what Pálsson (1993/94) refers to as the concept of ‘cultural dyslexia’  which is described as the “…failure to ‘read’ other cultures and to come to terms with difference” (4). The mutual learning process could be observed on the following levels.
Observing, understanding and trying
It was necessary to observe the cultural context in different settings for each setting had its own unique way in determining the role functions of its members. Hierarchy was one of the relevant aspects. Since Thai society is a hierarchical prone society influenced by Hinduism and partly from social status, the researchers must know the persons whom the researchers had to visit or to pay attention most at the beginning of the school contact.  Also, observing played a major role in deciding the right direction or step to go through such as observation of body movement, facial expressions, emotional expressions, or the tones of the language.
For understanding, the researchers needed to understand the context especially the classroom teaching , for example, behaviour managment , or corporal punishment . Also, understanding the emotional plights of the parents is very important for the researchers since most parents believed that children with disabilities were born from the wrong doings in the past, thus, they needed to repay their sins in this present life. As the research coordinator was present during all the interviews that were conducted and observed almost all of the questionnaires being filled in, she got a feeling about how communication among Thai people seems to work. Working with four different research assistants she had the possibility to engage in a lot of different interviews and working styles. Despite not understanding every single Thai word that was being exchanged, she realized that the process of mere ‘talking’ was one of the core aspects of Thai interaction. This happened through listening, observing and engaging in the setting. Even after an interview lasting for more than an hour participants were willing to engage in extensive rituals of saying good-bye that involved an exchange of a lot of formalities (such as the ‘wai’ , thanking each other and wishing each other a nice farewell) and words. Parents and teachers reported that ‘talking’ lay at the core of their everyday business with each other and among other actors at school and in relation to the children with disabilities. The examples below serve as illustration:
•             “Interviewer: Do you talk to your colleagues or get assistance if you face problems in teaching children with special needs?
Mrs. W.: Yes, I often talk to my teacher colleagues about special education. I have to know about the children’s behavior. When I do not understand their behavior, I ask my colleagues because they have the information to let me know. Every evening we meet together for about one hour in the special education room.”
(Interview with a teacher at an inclusive school in Bangkok, 2011)
•             “Interviewer: Do you often talk with other parents who have children with disabilities?
Mrs. M.: Well, not very often, but I usually talk with them. We also talk on the phones.
Interviewer: What do you talk with the other parents?
Mrs. M.: Mostly about our child. We would remind among us that today there would be some activities at school, or the class would finish sooner. It is mostly about this.“
(Interview with a mother at a special school in Bangkok, 2012)
It became obvious that this concept was worth exploring further. If teachers engaged in exchange after classes on a daily basis and if parents were constantly exchanging with others although they did not even feel like it, there seemed to be more to it. Spending more than 9 months in Bangkok, the first author of this paper became aware of the fact that communication was omnipresent. People on Bangkok’s underground or skytrain, in buses, shopping centers and restaurants suddenly seemed to be calling, texting or ‘lining’ each other non-stop if they were not talking to each other. It came more than natural a decision in accordance with Grounded Theory to engage in this practice. Leaving some of her own socialization in terms of communication and associated reservation behind, she engaged in ‘kui’. The exchange among the Thai research team became more lively in the course of this process which had an impact on the contents of the interviews as well. Grounded Theory enabled the research team to adapt the research activities according to what the data implicated. Interviews became less structured and more interactive as the concept of ‘kui’ invaded it on many levels. Not only did the team engage more into exchanging among each other (a process that definitely also benefited from the length of time spent in the field and the ‘chemistry’ among the persons involved) and in more informal ways. Additionally, the research team engaged in ‘polylogs’ during the interviews. Important passages were translated and discussed right away, with the permission of the interviewee. So asking immediate questions and shedding a multiple intercultural perspective on what had been said was possible and the interviewees could engage in this process which was held in a mix of Thai and English. It enabled a different understanding of the meanings of certain words and sparked new questions and enabled approaching new sources of information such as an expert in Buddhist philosophy. Children with disabilities were invited to participate in what was coined ‘experimental’ interviews which enabled them to choose their preferred mode of exchange. May it be talking, using Sign Language, playing with hand-puppets or other toys provided, drawing or whatever made them feel comfortable. After their participation they were awarded with a present.

4. Questioning preconcepts, celebrating and engaging in exchange

Arriving in Bangkok as an inexperienced researcher five years ago, the first author of this paper remembers that she had prepared tons of copies of elaborated manuals on the project design and the methodology applied. At first she was eager to present what she had learned during her training and aiming at taking the amount of data expected home. Learning that her research partners had never heard anything about Grounded Theory (as Thai research in special education is still highly engaged with a focus on mere quantitative approaches, Cheausuwantavee, Nookaew, & Cheausuwantavee, 2010) made her discover an urge in herself to make her four assistants understand. It took a while until she got fully rid of what Turner refers to as ‘arrogance’ (2010). Despite thinking about herself as being equipped with a high level of cultural sensitivity (Vallaster, 2000), she initially ignored the assets of diversity within Grounded Theory at first. Only slowly did she come to terms with the fact that what she perceived as being the truth could actually be the cause of distortion and ‘bad’ data. As Urquhart puts it: “The researcher has to set aside theoretical ideas in order to let the substantive theory emerge.” (2013, 7) Only after around four months in the field, endless sessions of ‘kui’, having had enough time to getting to know each other did the team engage in celebrating the full scale of ‘freedom’ provided by the application of Grounded Theory. During the second phase of qualitative data collection, the research coordinator fully grasped the potential of the constant exchange among the team. A process that would in the end also benefit the aim of drawing a holistic picture of the educational situation of children with disabilities in a certain cultural context. According to Glaser’s assumption that “[a]ll is data” (1998, 8), did the team engage in adding additional sources of qualitative material. Among these were Focus Group Discussions that were taped on video and later on translated by the whole team. As these joint translation processes proofed to be a perfect source of data itself it was broadened to discussing difficult passages that stemmed from translation (as described by Temple, & Young, 2004). In the course of regular meetings issues related to challenges in data collection activities and tentative sources of additional data (such as personal contacts) were discussed. It took a while to fully engage in the process of Grounded Theory and catering for all the ideas that developed among the team. In the end it was almost the opposite as the stage of ‘saturation’ of data (Urquhart, 2013) seemed to move more and more out of sight and lead to the collection of a huge data set that is currently being analyzed among the research team.

5. Enabling Transcultural Research Accounts – The Way Ahead

After having described the assets as well as challenges of a trans-cultural, research among a highly cooperative team, the final part of this contribution will focus on the opportunities of such a process. Above all the question of how it can serve us in understanding challenges towards and opportunities for inclusive education shall be elaborated. In the course of collecting data in Bangkok some of the following issues are to illustrate the challenges the application of universal standardized tools might cause:
•             Language related issues:
At the point of writing there exists no Thai version of the ICF, nor the ICF-CY according to the knowledge of the author of the contribution. Supposing that there was one and imagining that the Thai team would have missed out on some of the discourses they had over the use of certain words would have been devastating. These were discourses that caused the reframing of some of the research activities in the other two research sites involved in the CLASDISA project. The Thai team learned that e.g. it made no sense to ask parents in Bangkok about strategies for ‘coping’ with their child with disability as the concept of coaching does not exist. The same holds true for the notion of being religious which could be translated into a belief in Karma. The discourse over an alternative concept to this Western-based understanding lead to the fact that parents of children with disabilities in Thailand used several numbers of expressions (as of today analysis of this lead to at least five terms) to describe their ‘acceptance’ of the fact that their child had  a disability (Proyer 2014) . Discussing this aspect among the teams conducting research in Vienna and Addis Ababa lead to a lively discourse about imposing Western-based concepts despite plans to avoid that at all costs. 
•             Discourse of culture among international inter-cultural research teams:
The mere thought that any of the processes among the Thai research team as described above might have fallen victim to already agreed upon definitions and categories causes fear of standardized research processes imposed by those who have access to funds. Ignorance against those who facilitate research processes and support vital processes such as translation need to have be considered and involved in processes of data analysis to enable a culture-sensitive process throughout.
•             Missing out on stories…
…as they are told by children who are free to choose their topics and modes of conversation. Which would then lead to the fact that those who are at the core of a research as the one presented will remain the ones who have to keep silent as their voices will be cut out due to a lack in capacity to respond to a standardized complicated question.
•             Questioning the global?
One of the core issues that lie at the heart of cross-cultural research is the fact that those who are engaged in it are urged and provoked to question their own preconceptions. Going back to one’s own country one might develop a new perspective derived from what he or she has learned in a different cultural context.
Drawing from the authors’ rather personal experiences this contribution closes with a rather pessimistic notion. Judging from the reported benefits as described by researchers involved in intercultural research activities, the vision of standardized measures causes some kind of tension. This is not to say that all efforts to standardize have a fatal effect. The UNCRPD (2006) serves as perfect example for the necessity of universal agreements and benefits their implementation can bring about . An idea would be to make them part of intercultural research efforts in order to improve them and fill them with lived experiences. As described above the application of a broad (Mixed Methods) and open approach (Grounded Theory) enabled an open and fruitful exchange among an international team of researchers who set out with the idea of applying the ideas of the ICF’s environmental factors. They soon proved to be too strict a measure for this purpose. It would have posed too much a danger of silencing some of the actors involved in our research endeavor.
Having said this, we hope that these insights into how we approached the field and how important it is to listen and learn from those we are involving in our research will inspire other researchers to be open to explore the variety of stories about disability in different places around the world.

6. References

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