Georgia: integrating children with disabilities into society
By John Mackedon for UNICEF,
To look at the Kindergarten #16 in Georgia’s capital city ,Tbilisi, any passerby would probably think that it resembles any other kindergarten - or ‘garden’ as kindergartens are auspiciously known in the local tongue - in the city. But the plain, whitewashed walls and yard filled with various playground equipment belie the extraordinary reality within.
Inside, more than half-a-dozen children sit at different tables honing a variety of skills – from learning colors and numbers to improving speech and motor skills. The sounds made by a cat followed by a cow, being imitated by three students at one table, are temporarily drowned out by a round of applause for 5-year-old Levan, who has just refitted five multicolored rings back onto their post in the correct order – an amazing feat for this young sufferer of cerebral palsy.
“Yes, I like school very much,” proclaims Levan after relishing the praise of his classmates, letting the giant smile he wears on his face erase any further doubts of his present joy at being surrounded by other children.
Levan is one of 10,722 children with disabilities registered in
This centre aims to rehabilitate children with disabilities ages 3-7 and prepare them for integration into an inclusive education system. The project also targets children aged 0 – 3. The experts from the centre visit 10 policlinics in
Throughout the morning the children move to different areas and rooms to work with a variety of specialists on different skills. In addition to the special education teachers working directly with the children, the staff include specialists in occupational therapy, physical therapy, language therapy and psychology to help maximize the chances of these children integrating into society. In one small classroom, two twin boys with cerebral palsy practice their handwriting by copying words from a blackboard, while next door a young child is receiving massage treatments to his throat and mouth to loosen his muscles so that he can tell his speech therapist all about his summer vacation in the mountains.
Learning lessons for lifeEvery section of the centre has a different layout designed to help these children refine different skills – one section is filled with small garments so the children may practice dressing themselves; another teaches them proper hygiene; while a third, undoubtedly the favorite among the children, is filled with small slides and balls of different sizes so that the children can learn to play and interact with one another – an extremely important aspect of the centre, as all the students here spend the second half of everyday integrating into the classrooms on the second and third floors of this kindergarten.
“The overall aim of this rehabilitation centre,” says Taduli Kekenadze, the Director of the centre at Kindergarten #16, “is to teach these children ‘pre-academic’ skills – social skills, everyday skills. It is very important that these children learn together, as most children with disabilities tend to be isolated at home.”
Recent expert recommendations for improving the situation in the region call for changes in public attitudes, changes to the physical environments that exacerbate the impact of disability and greater participation of parents in decisions affecting their children. Three years ago, UNICEF Georgia, in partnership with the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science, began addressing these very issues through the introduction of inclusive education programmes.
“I think this programme is very important,” says one father, whose daughter only just began attending the centre. “Before, my daughter was alone at home, but I want her to be around other children so that she can be integrated.”
In addition, an expert group has prepared a manual for teachers working with children from the first to third grades, focusing on methods to teach mathematics and the Georgian language to children with disabilities. The Georgian Ministry of Education and Science has supported this process over the last four years by providing 10 assistant teachers to work with the children.
The final stage of this project involves integrating school-age children older than seven into the country’s formal schooling system. At present, 10 schools in the capital have model programmes that integrate 40 children with disabilities. These children are taught by 40 teachers who have been specifically trained within the project to assist these kids in overcoming any difficulties that may occur during the learning process.
“I have seen a lot of progress and these children are very interested in learning,” says Sopo Butsrekhidze, the special education teacher at School # 61, “the students who started here last year had trouble writing – now they all know how to write.”
Later that same day, Salome, who is in the third grade, Mariam, who is in the second grade, and Nika can all be seen with their respective classmates in the school yard during recess. As Nika throws a ball back to one of his classmates it becomes obvious that the other children in his class have ceased regarding Nika as the new kid with a disability – already he is merely the new kid.