|Students at School Number 27 school in Yerevan, Armenia, where pupils with special needs are included in the classroom and encouraged to excel along with their peers.|
By Mervyn Fletcher
YEREVAN, Armenia, 17 April 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, who are engaged in an arts and crafts class. Like any curious schoolchildren, they ask us 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 and revealing question. From the perspective of the children, it is nothing remarkable that some of their classmates have special needs – the reason we strangers are visiting this innovative school.
Removing barriers to education
Anoush, 12, is wheelchair-bound. Until recently, her disability would have excluded her from the mainstream Armenian education system.
“The barriers special needs children face are imposed by grown-ups and the society around them. These barriers are not of their making,” said UNICEF Representative in Armenia Sheldon Yett. “All children have an equal right to an education.”
Anoush may have impaired speech and mobility, but this no longer prevents her from going to 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.
“All children here learn tolerance. They are calmer and more attentive as a result,” said School Number 27 Principal Susanna Sargsyan. “The special needs children become more self-confident. They are encouraged to achieve.”
|© UNICEF video|
|A classroom at School Number 27, one of Armenia’s inclusive schools, which provide specialists in speech, hearing, psychology and physical movement.|
In addition to conventional academic lessons, School Number 27 provides specialists in speech, hearing, psychology and physical movement. Pupils receive 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 facilities where they were denied a decent education.
In 2005, the government – in discussion with UNICEF, international donors and NGOs – passed legislation in which it recognized that special needs children had the same rights to a decent education as all other children. Budgetary commitment followed.
Preliminary research suggests that the child rights-based rationale for ensuring educational opportunities for all children is backed by a cost-benefit analysis. The expense of placing a special needs child in a separate establishment for the disabled is double the cost of sending him or her to a mainstream school.
The best figures available suggest there are up to 10,000 special needs children in Armenia. Of these, more than 500, like Anoush, are now enjoying full access to education.