Op-ed: Inclusive education, and caring families for children with disabilities, ensure their best start in life
For the first eleven years of her life, Nevena never left her home. She never went to school and wasnt even able to play with other children. Ever since Nevena was born I tried to hide her from the neighbors and everybody else because there was something wrong with her, her mother said.
Nevena's mother echoes the fear of stigmatization shared by many women who have given birth to children with disabilities in Kikinda, a small provincial town in Northern Serbia.
Discrimination and negative attitudes toward disability still pervade Serbia, particularly in rural and under-developed areas, and other countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Sadly, these perceptions and behaviours are often greater barriers to the child`s full inclusion into society than the actual disability itself.
A WHO benchmark places the number of children who have disabilities at 2.5 per cent of the population or 2.6 million children in the 22 countries and entities that make up this region. National statistics, however, record only 1.5 million children. They are likely to be out of school. We believe this figure seriously underestimates the scope of the problem. At least another 1.1 million children, like Nevena, are unaccounted for. They are invisible - hidden away because of social stigma or a lack of education and health services.
Another challenge is that huge numbers of children with disabilities are placed in institutions a long standing and accepted policy approach in most countries of this region. More than 600,000 children are believed to be in institutional care - the highest in the world. In large part, this is due to an outdated medical approach in which children with disabilities are regarded as defective from the norm and therefore need to be separated from the society in order to be appropriately taken care of.
In the most extreme of situations, some children`s institutions are dark, dank, dirty with little heating and almost no support services. These children become most vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation. Some have adequate conditions and committed staff who really care about children. But this is not enough. It cannot replace the attention and care of a family, which has proven critical for maximizing development. The institution itself the way it is organized and the way it reduces a child to a number - denies children the best start in life for learning. It denies them a childhood.
Research shows that long-term placement in institutions damages childrens health and development. Babies who are placed in institutions for more than six months suffer a delay in early brain development. It affects how they think, how they move and how they relate to other people.
Another challenge is that when children with disabilities live in their homes and are attending mainstream schools, they are often placed in segregated classes. They are either taught a remedial curriculum or not taught at all. Nor are they offered the support some may need to be able to thrive with their classmates.
To address these challenges, existing policies and approaches need to change. One important shift is to provide these children the best possible opportunities to be part of a family, educated in a mainstream school and be included and accepted in society. With inclusive education policies - a critical element of social inclusion - and a supportive society, children with disabilities can thrive as active and productive members of society.
Inclusive education benefits all learners. Research shows that inclusive education can lead to better learning outcomes for all children, not just children with disabilities. Inclusive education promotes tolerance and enables social cohesion as it fosters a cohesive social culture and promotes equal participation in society. Inclusive education is more cost effective than separated schooling. Finally, it provides for inclusive labor markets, which are instrumental for a more efficient social economy.
To foster dialogue on this issue among experts and policymakers, a major conference will be held in Moscow on 27-29 September with confirmed participation of 20 countries. Organised by UNICEF with the support of the Moscow City Government, the conference urges governments to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and push for inclusive education policies. Of particular focus are the sharing of good practices such as appropriate legal framework, suitable policies, and financing.
A sustained effort should be made to reduce prejudice, stigma and discrimination against children with disabilities through mass social mobilization and communication for behaviour and social change campaigns. We believe children should be central to these initiatives. For example, children with and without disabilities will also voice their opinions and blog at the conference.
Current positive trends and advocacy efforts elsewhere will also be highlighted during these three days.
Russia, the host of the conference, signed the Convention in 2008. There is ongoing dialogue in 26 regions of the Russia Federation on how to ensure children`s inclusion in mainstream schools and strengthen educators in addressing all childrens needs.
Lithuania started their path to inclusive education in 1990. Substantial changes to the education law for children with disabilities have been made. Parents and teachers` associations have been highly influential. Currently, 70 per cent of children with disabilities are in regular schools which can seek support from local pedagogical and psychological services for assessment and counselling.
Serbia took a pivotal step this year, following Romania, approving a law to end placing children below three years of age in institutions. These are important first steps to facilitate a shift in attitudes within the society and to allow children with and without disabilities to fully participate in inclusive societies. All children must be able to leave these institutions and stay with loving families, where they belong.
Nevena lost 11 years of her life. By building a more inclusive society and shedding our prejudices, we can help the most vulnerable children, like Nevena, achieve their full potential.
The writer is the Regional Director, UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.