Sawasdee, UNC!

At work in Thailand, UNC professors are helping expand and improve the country’s educational services
By Joshua Zaffos

ThailandIt’s an unusually mild and pleasant December day in central Thailand as Silvia Correa-Torres, UNC associate professor of Special Education, and her Thai colleagues step out of a van for a morning of research. Staff with the Faculty of Education at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University slightly bow and press their hands together, welcoming them with a traditional Thai greeting, “Sawasdee, kah.” Then the group slips off their shoes and enters the building in the small city of Phitsanulok.

A professor who specializes in education for the blind and visually impaired, Correa-Torres is here with Piyarat Nuchpongsai and Teerasak “Tum” Srisurakul, both from Mahidol University, which is located about an hour’s drive from Bangkok, depending on the city’s notorious traffic. Together, they are studying Thai universities’ services for students with disabilities — from admission rates and tuition help to campus and dorm accessibility to tutoring and educational resources.

Thailand has made great strides in the field of disability support services (or DSS), since passing national laws guaranteeing education for such students over the past 15 years — following examples from the United States and elsewhere. Since 2008, UNC faculty, including Silvia, have also played a role through formal partnerships with the Thailand Commission on Higher Education and the Ministry of Education that have established trainings, exchanges and professional development that rely on UNC’s experiences and expertise. The visit to Phitsanulok is part of a research collaboration among Silvia, Piyarat and Tum studying the advances in DSS across the Thai higher-education system. (Full disclosure: I’m accompanying Silvia both as husband and freelance writer.)

Just a few decades ago, there was no DSS office at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat, and administrators were reluctant to even admit students with disabilities, says Siriwimol “Pia” Jai-ngam, the dean of the faculty of education who established the university’s DSS center in 2005. “Now, that’s changed,” she says.

On the Pibulsongkram Rajabhat campus, a group of seven students who are deaf is gathered in a side room in the DSS office on the third floor, among 39 students with disabilities. Tum leads them through a survey, to evaluate their use and perceptions of support services on campus. The students quickly flash sign language among each other, discussing questions and responses, while school interpreters look on. In the next room, Silvia and Piyarat begin interviewing the program administrators, inquiring about budgets, staff numbers, course offerings and other DSS resources.

“It’s good to see the universities using many of the strategies we shared with them five years ago,” says Silvia, who visited Thailand twice in 2008. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico leading to her heightened interest in international special education and disability support services.

“I’ve been very impressed with the number of universities providing services for students with disabilities.”


Over three-plus months last fall, the researchers from UNC and Mahidol traveled up and down Thailand studying how universities have launched and expanded DSS to support students with disabilities. Along the way, they crossed southeast Asia by private car, taxi, plane, minivan, light rail, and even motorcycle. They negotiated monsoonal floods and political protests in Thailand and even the effects of Typhoon Haiyan while on a side trip to the Philippines.

Whatever the mode of transport, traveling Thailand is a dizzying and exciting adventure through relatively sleepy towns and small cities and then the overwhelming bustle of Bangkok, a metropolis of more than 8 million people. Wherever you go, the food is delicious and often spicy, the people are welcoming and friendly, and Buddhist temples and statues serve as impressive and beautiful cultural landmarks
that warrant a visit and some photos.

Buddhism in Thailand and other countries, however, has a surprising historical legacy when it comes to disability. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma — the concept that good or bad behavior in former lives contribute to fortune or suffering in our current and future lives — and have traditionally viewed disabilities as the consequences of past misdeeds. As a result, Thai families once may have treated children with disabilities as an embarrassment and been unlikely to seek out education and assistance for them.

Further, Buddhists’ strong adherence to compassion has meant citizens respond to people with disabilities through charity, but are less likely to try to improve their lives or support their education in inclusive learning environments. The general kindness is, of course, a good thing, but the approach may have been “preventing persons with disabilities from joining society on an equal footing,” according to a 2002 report prepared by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The same report also noted that Thai government surveys found that less than 8 percent of children with disabilities received education in 1998, an outcome attributed to cultural barriers and a lack of training for teachers and facilities with appropriate accommodations.

Remembering when she began her career as a primary-school teacher, Pia, the education dean at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, says, “At that time, no one knew about special education. Kids [with disabilities] could not come to a regular school, only a special school,” such as an institution or school for the blind or deaf.

“Before, there were certain professions for people who are visually impaired — for example, Thai massage — and that’s practically all they were trained to do for work,” adds Silvia. “Going to university was not an option.”

Thailand’s government initially addressed the shortcomings in 1999, through the National Educational Act, which first promised access to public schools for children with disabilities. The law and others that followed helped raise enrollment rates of such students in primary schools — but some schools and teachers continued to struggle with special education and classroom inclusion, integrating students with disabilities and non-disabled students.

Building on the progress, the 2008 Education Provision for People with Disabilities Act in Thailand — similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — made it illegal for schools to refuse education to children with disabilities. Education officials, meanwhile, began figuring out how they could support instructors in primary and secondary schools and at universities.

Looking to promote and extend disability support services at campuses, the Thailand Commission on Higher Education reached out to UNC and the School of Special Education, among other institutions. Sumate Yamnoon (MS-80, PhD-84), the commission’s then secretary-general, is a UNC alum, and among dozens of Thai nationals who have attended and graduated from UNC and the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences.

Currently, 38 Thai undergraduate and graduate students study at UNC across 13 different majors, in addition to peers from seven other Asian countries. Thai students make up the second largest international group on campus (Saudi Arabia is first). Many of those students plan to return home to teach, says Maureen Ulevich, director of UNC’s Center for International Education. Meanwhile, the School of Education graduates twice as many teacher candidates as the next leading university in Colorado (Metropolitan State University in Denver), and produces more graduate degrees than any other department at UNC.

“We strongly celebrate and are really comfortable with cultural and linguistic diversity,” says Harvey Rude, director and professor at UNC’s School of Special Education and director of the university’s Bresnahan-Halstead Center on Disabilities. “It’s something that comes naturally to faculty in special education.”

The existing connections and the school and faculty’s reputation — and the outreach efforts of Eugene Sheehan, dean of UNC’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences — paved the way for an agreement with the Thai Commission on Higher Education. In May 2008, and again in August, Harvey, Silvia, and Associate Professor Robin Brewer, and other faculty and staff went to Thailand to lead training modules at Mahidol for professors and DSS personnel from 13 Thai universities.

“It was an opportunity to not only go to Thailand and teach and share our knowledge about disability services, but also to learn about how their services compared with the United States,” Silvia says. By the time of the return visit in August, “they were already implementing procedures and processes we had taught them in May, so that was very exciting.”

During that same summer, Chatchai Srivilai, a Thai higher-education official, came to Greeley for two months to observe and learn from UNC’s practices. He returned to Thailand wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie, having embraced Western American culture. And, later that fall, 30 instructors and staff from Thai universities, including Pia, spent two weeks in Greeley to learn more about teaching methods and DSS program administration.

“Thailand, like most countries, has modeled a lot of their education policy after what we do here in the U.S. The difficulty is that it doesn’t always get implemented,” Harvey says. “You can pass laws but if you don’t have resources and funding and support you don’t see it in practice. That’s why this initial project was very significant because it really was an effort to be inclusive of persons with disabilities in their higher-education system.”

Adds Pia: “Seeing DSS in the United States inspired me to do something more [with DSS at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat]. Before, it was just my opinion that we should be doing better, but then we showed [officials in Thailand] what is happening in the United States.”


By the time Silvia boarded a plane back for Colorado in late December, she, Piyarat and Tum had visited 19 universities in Thailand, and also traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Manila Philippines for more informal looks at DSS at universities in those countries. The Philippines trip coincided with the landfall of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the southern islands of the country. The researchers avoided the most severely impacted areas while in Manila, although their meeting with a Filipino university official had to be relocated to a shopping mall after the campus shut down in preparation for the storm.

So far, the researchers have identified a wide range of services at Thai universities, says Piyarat, with schools often catering their resources to the student population and their particular disability. Universities also vary greatly in how they staff, fund and administer DSS offices, offering plenty of areas for analysis. Presently, many Thai students with disabilities are limited to pursue certain majors, such as special education, often due to a lack of interpreters or tutors who can support them. Piyarat also believes high school teachers could still be better trained to work with students with disabilities to prepare them to attend college.

But despite the room for growth, 31 universities in Thailand now offer some level of DSS to students, an impressive increase from the universities that initially sent staff to train with UNC professors.

Piyarat and Tum will compile their survey and research findings into a final report for the Commission on Higher Education to show what types of services institutions are providing, what opportunities exist for students at different campuses, and how schools are spending government funds and operating their DSS programs. The conclusions and results, says Piyarat, should inform recommendations for national policies to establish and expand higher-education disability services, and also serve universities that continue to develop DSS.

As far as past cultural barriers, Piyarat says views of disabilities as bad karma have largely dissipated in Thailand, and “universities accept students with disabilities to study more than in the past. Now, we have special-education centers in every province, and staff promote that students with disabilities can learn. Attitudes are changing little by little.”

Silvia and her Mahidol colleagues will also analyze and publish the full results in academic journals, identifying trends and challenges, including the specific resources and obstacles for students with hearing loss and visual impairment. The research will add to a growing area of research on disability support services around the world. It should also further elevate UNC’s profile among Thai and Asian students and teachers, helping UNC’s international recruitment.

“It extends beyond just the professional development,” adds Harvey, of the benefits of the cross-cultural cooperation. “We get students coming here to enroll in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. If you look at the future of higher education in this country, it really is becoming increasingly dependent on being successful in the international environment.”

Sheehan, UNC’s education dean, has worked toward that goal, building on the school’s connections and expertise. In addition to inking the agreement with the Thai Commission on Higher Education, in 2010 he helped develop a teacher and student exchange program with Burapha University in the coastal province of Chonburi. Through the initiative, Burapha faculty and graduates attend classes and lecture in Greeley, while UNC faculty and students do the same in Thailand. About 100 people have already participated in the exchange, including several now employed as school principals in Thailand. The universities have also launched a joint, five-year degree program that enables Burapha students to study for two years in UNC before returning home to get their teacher’s licenses. Burapha officials recognized Eugene’s contributions with an honorary doctorate and ceremony in Thailand in 2011.

Kasetsart University, in Bangkok, has also partnered with UNC on an exchange program and in developing its education program for teachers of gifted and talented students. And Eugene, Harvey and other UNC officials are also exploring more university partnerships in Asia, including South Korea, Singapore and China.

“We have a lot to offer international students,” says Eugene, “and, given our background in the preparation of educators, UNC is pretty uniquely poised to do some of that teaching in the Asian community.”

At the same time, UNC and its professors and staff are also gaining from the international cooperation. “One of the benefits is collaborating with people who have different ways of thinking about the world,” says Eugene. “When you do research in foreign countries, it opens up
your eyes.”

After a rewarding personal and professional experience abroad, Silvia returned to UNC with her eyes opened wide. “I hope to continue the collaborative relationship I have with colleagues at Mahidol,” she says, “and that more Thai students and instructors come here, too, to learn more about how we train special education teachers, teachers of the deaf, and teachers of students with visual impairments.

“They’re invested in students with disabilities in the country,” Silvia says, “and I want to be witness to how services keep evolving.” NV

mapMapping it: Silvia’s research takes her to 19 universities in Thailand and also to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Manila, Philippines.


‘Very Impressed’
The assessment of UNC Associate Professor Silvia Correa-Torres, left, pictured with research colleagues Teerasak “Tum” Srisurakul and Piyarat Nuchpongsai. Silvia returned to Thailand after visits in 2008 to follow up with universities on strategies for serving students with disabilities (above).

Relationship dates back 50 years
Somphol “Pia” Dounglomchunt (BA-75, MA and EDD-81) followed on the heels of the first wave of Thai students to attend UNC.
Pia says that UNC can trace connections to Thaliand to at least the late 1960s as part of a U.S. government exchange program called American International Development. UNC’s involvement was related to its reputation in education, Pia says.
Pia and his wife, Songsri “Toot” Dounglomchunt, visit Thailand once a year and serve as volunteer ambassadors for recruiting students to UNC. They also direct a program that brings Thai students to University Schools in Greeley.