Turning barriers into opportunities
How people in Belarus supported Ulyana to continue her studies
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“Six months ago, we faced an issue of switching Ulyana’s school studies to homeschooling, and I needed to quit my job and stay with my daughter,” says Elena, mother of 15-year-old Ulyana with cerebral palsy and severe visual impairment. Ulyana is studying in 7th grade at an integrated general education school. Until recently, she would simply slip from her chair and fall as it was not adapted for her needs, and without an enlarger or TV, she could not see educational materials. Thanks to private donations collected through a UNICEF fundraising campaign in Belarus, Ulyana continued to study at school. She is now an 8th grader. These funds provided the special assistive equipment she needed to study comfortably. It was critical for Ulyana to stay with her peers at school.
“Ulyana is looking forward to the next lessons. She knows her schedule very well. Sometimes I forget and ask her what lesson is next, and Ulyana responds right away,” says Inna, a speech therapist pedagogue, as we look around the classroom at School 1 in Berezovka, Belarus where Ulyana studies.
Today, Ulyana is attending a school camp. She would first individually study Russian, literature and computer literacy (a light version of computer science) with her teacher. And then, she would enjoy math and geography with her classmates in an inclusive class. Such a blended learning system supports children with special needs to study in an inclusive environment. Children are given more time to master the subjects: in elementary school, there are five classes, and in secondary school - four.
“Ulyana has a very good memory,” Inna continues. “Her visual impairment slows her learning down, but if we could address that, she would have succeeded even more. Intellectually Ulyana achieves a lot, but visual impairment interferes with her studies. Her marks are quite high,” Inna says. Ulyana has optic nerve atrophy, which, unfortunately, cannot be treated.
Ulyana feels shy about all the attention she gets; however, she talks about the lessons with pleasure. “Biology is my favorite,” she says with a smile. She is looking forward to classes where she can learn with her peers.
“They have a small friendly class, only eight students,” says Inna. Mom nods approvingly: “She likes the class and the other kids. Ulyana even shares with me whom she likes the most in the class. She is an adolescent."
Ulyana learns a lot from her peers. It is so important for children with disabilities not to be confined within their homes but to socialize at school together with other children.
“You see, with Ulyana I can go to the cinema or shopping,” says Elena. “Children who study at home – even with a milder diagnosis, cannot do this. This is unusual for them; they are afraid of people, they are afraid of society. It’s very challenging. Those children are stressed because they fear people passing nearby, or loud noises they may hear. School means socialization, communication, and getting new friends. I can’t remember Ulyana being dragged to classes with unease. If that happened, we wouldn’t continue studying at school. Ulyana, on the contrary, is quite excited."
Inclusive education is beneficial for everyone. Early studies showed that children with disabilities who study in inclusive classes are more successful in learning and communicating with their peers. They are less anxious, and it is easier for them to establish close relationships.
We started talking about home-schooling and Elena became gloomy. Six months ago, she seriously considered switching to home-schooling. The chair and desk at school were not adapted to Ulyana’s needs. The desk was not adjustable for her to sit comfortably so that her textbooks were at her eye level. Ulyana would also slip from the chair and fall. Ulyana could not see the school materials without a magnifier. The teachers had to print texts in large fonts, and pictures would lose quality and become blurred when made bigger.
In addition, Ulyana and her mother live on the 5th floor without an elevator. Daily descent to the first floor is another challenge. The device to allow Ulyana to descend on her wheelchair has not yet been installed, despite numerous requests of her mother.
To the extent possible, the school tried to organize a barrier-free environment. There is a ramp and handrails at the entrance, and Ulyana's classes are held on the ground floor. Every morning Ulyana is met by Zhanna Stanislavovna, who helps Ulyana move around the school. The adolescent's mother says that Ulyana loves Zhanna a lot. There was not enough funding, however, for assistive devices and equipment. State funding is insufficient to establish inclusive schools, additional funding is needed.
“After another fall, I saw that my child was worried of falling at home,” says Elena. “Ulyana was so stressed her hands would become red, but she would continue squeezing the chair in fear of falling again. I had to feed her myself at some point; she refused to free her arms,” says Elena.
“Yes,” Inna confirms. “She was distracted during the lesson by the fear of falling. She didn't feel safe."
In Belarus, about 186,000 children have a disability or psychophysical development needs. One out of 10 don’t attend school. The main reason is both physical barriers - only one school out of ten provides a barrier-free environment; as well as society's attitude towards children with disabilities. We must create opportunities for all children to study at school.
Petya from Ulyana's school has poor eyesight - myopia. He needs glasses to read. This is his special need. Olya studies with him. Olya needs to be taught how to properly position her hand for writing. This is her special need.
Ulyana has cerebral palsy, scoliosis, hip dysplasia and serious vision problems. She needs special equipment - a comfortable and spacious desk, an adjustable chair with fixation and a magnifier to see school materials. This is her special need.
All children have the right to education, and all children need support so that they are able to reach their full potential.
UNICEF in Belarus promotes inclusive education to help children with special needs to study in mainstream schools with other children. UNICEF supports this by procuring assistive equipment and devices that help children with disabilities learn at school.
Using the funds raised by UNICEF in Belarus as part of the Move4Good sports initiative, we helped Ulyana together: we bought equipment for the school so that she could continue her education. Ulyana has a special chair and a desk now, and educational materials can be placed at her eye level. The school also received a large TV with a computer processor so that Ulyana can see school materials, photos and videos.
“We are relieved. Ulyana went to the 8th grade,” Elena says with a smile. “You have no idea what this means to us. Thank you very much for helping us. Ulyana’s eyes sparkle with joy every time she wakes up and gets ready for school. It is indeed a treasured moment for us."