Breaking down barriers for special needs children
By Mervyn Fletcher
Yerevan, Armenia - April 15, 2008 - School number 27 is unremarkable from the outside. It is large, brown and grey; typical of soviet-era public buildings.
We enter and are escorted to a classroom where we interrupt a group of 12-year-old girls, no boys, who are engaged in an arts and crafts class. Like any curious schoolchildren, they ask us strangers questions, one of the first being ‘do we think it is odd that there are no boys in the class’?
It is a refreshingly honest question. From the perspective of the children there is nothing remarkable that some of their classmates have special needs – the reason we strangers are visiting this innovative school.
Removing barriersAnoush, aged 12, is wheelchair-bound. Until recently her disability would have excluded her from the mainstream Armenian education system.
UNICEF Armenia Representative Sheldon Yett said: “The barriers special needs children face are imposed by grown-ups and the society around them. These barriers are not of their making. All children have an equal right to an education.”
Anoush may have impaired speech and mobility, but this is no longer prevents her from attending school . She is one of 44 special needs children attending this school, and there are currently another 13 inclusive schools in the country.
“I like everything about the school,” she said. “My favourite subject is biology and I like learning about the environment. When the school day ends, I am not ready to go home.”
Later this year an additional 18 inclusive schools will be established in Armenia bringing the national total to 32.
School number 27 principal, Susanna Sargsyan, said: “All children here learn tolerance. They are calmer and more attentive as a result. The special needs children become more self-confident. They are encouraged to achieve.”
In addition to conventional academic lessons, school number 27 provides specialists in speech, hearing, psychology and physical movement. Pupils enjoy one-to-one teaching.
For decades the approach in Armenia had been to exclude special needs children from mainstream schools and place them in separate establishments where a decent education was denied them.
It was in 2005, that the government, in discussion with UNICEF, international donors and NGOs, passed legislation in which it recognized special needs children had the same rights to a decent education as all other children. Budgetary commitment followed.