Integrating children with disabilities into society
By John Mackedon for UNICEF, 21 October 2005
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.
While the top two floors of this three-story building are used as an ordinary kindergarten, the first floor of Kindergarten #16 contains the UNICEF–supported rehabilitation centre -- the only one of its kind in the city. The Centre is dedicated to helping pre-school aged children with disabilities integrate into the country’s school system, and society as a whole.
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 Georgia - 28 % of whom are living in institutions throughout the country. Until recently there have been few alternatives to institutionalized care or education in special schools for such children. However, the situation is changing and Levan is now part of a growing number of children who are being integrated into Georgia’s educational system through rehabilitation centres like the one at Kindergarten #16.
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 Tbilisi to train medical personnel, helping them to properly diagnose children with disabilities. Later, in the rehabilitation centre, children acquire important skills for their further integration. At present there are 30 children in the rehabilitation centre and 15 additional children have been enrolled into 10 different kindergartens throughout Tbilisi.
The right environment
The main room of the centre is bright and cheery and the walls are lined with the 33 different letters of the Georgian alphabet, alongside objects that begin with each letter, poems and colourful pictures featuring life-sized lions giving a thumbs-up and elves painting rainbows – in short, it resembles the proper environment to prepare any child for an eventual integration into school. Occasionally, the children move to a different table, from one focusing on learning the names of fruits and vegetables to one focusing on logic and memory games.
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.”
A recent UNICEF Innocenti Report, Children and Disability in Transition, finds that children with disabilities in the region still face stigma, as well as segregation into special schools -- the dominant response to their needs. And while there is a move towards integrating these children into public schools in countries throughout the region, many countries - including Georgia - do not have policies on special or inclusive education measures. As a result, children with disabilities are deprived of their right to receive education and are generally isolated from society.
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.”
Working with parents and teachers
UNICEF also supports efforts to help parents work with their disabled children outside the classroom setting. Guidelines and other materials to help parents have been published and several seminars have been conducted to help them understand and respond to the needs of their children.
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.
Getting kids into school
One such school that provides inclusive education is School #61, in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district. Outside the front door of School #61 Nika Talakhadze stands next to his grandmother and stares at the entrance. Nika has just returned from Moscow, where he was receiving treatment and therapy for his behavioral disabilities, and has missed the first days of school. Dressed in stylish brown corduroys, a sharp Atomic ski jacket, new skate shoes and a floppy denim hat, Nika appears ready to tackle the perilous task before him – his first day of grade school.
For the last three years Nika has attended the rehabilitation in Kindergarten #16, which has specifically prepared him for this day. Just as in Kindergarten #16, Nika will spend his mornings with a group of disabled children, receiving specialized lessons, before heading to a regular classroom for the second-half of the day. Nika is followed into the classroom by Mariam Gogoladze, 10, who, despite her cerebral palsy, independently makes her way to her desk by the window. Next to Mariam sits 9 year-old Salome Gelashvili, whose disabilities greatly hinder her ability to speak. Salome greets her friend and shows Mariam the high marks she received on her math and handwriting homework.
“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.
For more information:
Maya Kurtsikidze, Communication Officer, UNICEF Georgia, tel: (+995 32) 23 23 88, email: firstname.lastname@example.org