“We are different. We are equal”

A story from inclusive school in Belarus where all children study together

Vlad and his classmate are working in pairs
UNICEF Belarus
02 December 2020

According to the survey conducted by UNICEF in Belarus one third of children with disabilities aged 10-17 years old feel lonely. At the same time, every ninth disabled child does not attend an education institution.

However, today Belarusian schools are aware of inclusive approaches in education. For more than 20 years, children with mental and physical disabilities study together with other kids in secondary school No. 18 in Borisov, Belarus.

A quarter to eight. Children noisily flock to the school. Younger schoolchildren are accompanied by parents, some of them are skipping along, others are walking leisurely risking to be late for the first lesson, and some older children are taken by their mothers in wheelchairs along a long ramp. One of the children is always helping to hold the door to the school building.

We meet Vlad Gvozdovich from Grade 7 "A". The boy has cerebral palsy (infantile cerebral palsy - a disease of the central nervous system affecting a person's ability to move, maintain balance and posture – Editorial Note) and attends a regular school from Grade 1. Mom takes her son in a wheelchair to the central school stairs, and here they say goodbye. From that moment, Vladik falls into the caring hands of a caregiver.

Assistant helps Vlad to get to the next floor
UNICEF Belarus
Assistant helps Vlad to get to the next floor

This role is played by assistant teachers – these positions have been specially introduced in the school. They operate a special caterpillar elevator on which a wheelchair is placed. Slowly, step by step, Vlad gets to the second floor and goes to the classroom. Here he is met by classmates, among them is Vlad Bobylev who also has cerebral palsy and moves in a wheelchair.

Angela E. Mazurkevich, the school headmaster, was among those who adopted inclusive education in the Borisov school. The first children with mental and physical disabilities began to attend the school in 1996.

“Today we have the largest number of children with special needs in the Borisov rayon - this year 38 such kids study at our school. 17 out of 39 classes are integrated. Four of them have full integration i.e. most of the scheduled lessons are delivered by a therapeutic teacher. Other classes are partly integrated which means that children with mental and physical disabilities are integrated into the classes but are offered special education programs of general school."

“They should not be compared”

School No.18 is large by Borisov standards. Before one more school opened nearby, it enrolled more than 1.200 school students. Now they recollect with a smile the times when, with a large flow of children, they had to literally regulate the traffic in the corridor freeing up a space for wheelchairs. And if there were many children in wheelchairs during the school shift, volunteers from upper grades and adults lifted the children in the arms to the third floor so that they didn’t have to wait until the elevator was free.

“I treat him as an ordinary person. I don't understand why people say that they are different. They should not be compared,” - Maxim tells about his friendship with the boys.

It is noted in the school that during these years the attitude of other kids to children with disabilities has apparently changed. If before they paid attention to how such children moved, how they looked, now, in the last 5-7 years they do not see any differences.

School children
UNICEF Belarus

Inclusion at school helps children adapt to circumstances that may affect everyone

According to Angela Mazurkevich, everyone at school - teachers, children and, most importantly, their parents – undergoes adaptation. But this process was not always smooth:

“About 9-10 years ago the father of one of our girls came to me and said: “I don't want my daughter to study in an integrated class. I don't want her to see disabled people. We talked frankly and I told him a personal story, how we accepted the fact of disability in my family, and how hard it was for me. I tried to explain that there are moments in life when you need to walk this path. It is an adaptation to other life circumstances that may affect everyone. And it’s better if adaptation takes place at school rather than in adult age when you need to break yourself. For children this is easier.”

Previously we used to obtain a no objection from parents for the child to study in an integrated class. We do not do it in the last three years. Now all first grades in our school are integrated. And not a single parent came to me to express a concern.

The publication is prepared by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) under “Just the Children” Information Campaign aimed to support children with disabilities and their families. One of the key goals of the campaign is to promote inclusion of children with disabilities in education process. “Just the Children” campaign is implemented together with the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Belarus with financial support from the Government of the Russian Federation. The campaign was launched on 3 December under the international technical assistance project "Prevention of disability and social inclusion of disabled children and children with mental and physical disorders in Belarus".