Assistants for children with disabilities in schools, a helping hand that grants inclusion

UNICEF and the Great Britain ensure the recruitment of 40 assistants in Kosovo schools

Leonora Aliu
Rijad Mehmeti, using technology to attend distance learning.
23 March 2021

Pristina, March 2021 

A smile glimmers across Vlora Mehani’s face, mother of Art, 7 years old, as she meets her son’s assistant teacher, Njomza Bajqinovci, in the front yard of “Mihal Grameno” elementary school in Fushe Kosova. “I came very happily when teacher Njomza told me that you were going to visit us,” she tells the UNICEF team as she talks about her decisiveness to share her experience as a parent of a child with disabilities, who has finally found the support for her child’s education, institutionally and for free.

“I do not know how to put it into words, knowing that you are bringing your child to school where all his friends attend lessons, and knowing that you have someone like teacher Njomza assisting him so that he does not fall behind in school…It has a value beyond any price. For us as parents, it’s a blessing,” she tells us as she shares her experience of accepting classroom assistance for 7-year-old Art, through the UNICEF project on recruiting assistant teachers for children with disabilities in public elementary schools in Kosovo.

For Njomza, who has been practicing this profession for seven years, this is not just a job. She is a mother of a child with autism, therefore helping and supporting children with disabilities is also her life mission since, as she says, she knows very well what it is like to need support in order to grant inclusion and development for your child in need.

 Vlora Mehani, a mother of Art, 7 years old
Vlora Mehani, a mother of Art, 7 years old

“I am myself a mother of a six-year-old child with autism. I know perfectly well what support means for these children but also for these parents.” She says that her personal experience and professional training make her feel full of motivation when she is able to help children with disabilities. “I am trying to do everything I have managed to do with my child with other children so that these children can develop and feel like an equal part of the society, which they are!” Njomza says.

She also says that her role in the classrooms with children with disabilities is having an impact on the learning process too. “It is impossible for a teacher who has 30 students in a classroom and a child with disabilities to make time for this child because it requires a lot of commitment and care. It requires individual work to achieve the goals,” she explains.

Diella Bogiqi, who works at “Iliria” elementary school in Pristina, and also has two children under assistance, also talks about love and commitment in working with children with disabilities.

“Working with children with children with disabilities is a beautiful professional experience, very delicate, and with a lot of responsibilities,” she says. “There is no better feeling than being involved in a job that you know for sure will help someone in need. Children with disabilities are so delicate, so empathetic and really want to be part of the society, and together we can provide this to them,” she says.

Teacher Diella also says that parents are extremely welcoming of the work that assistant teachers do with their children. Mother Valdrina, who is a self-providing mother of two, talks about the impact that the assistant teacher Diella has had on her son Ledion. “The pandemic had a great impact on Leon, but since Diella started working with him, he is just happier. He is learning, and he wants to learn. For me it means a lot,” she says.

Njomza Bajqinovci, teacher at “Mihal Grameno” elementary school in Fushe Kosove
Njomza Bajqinovci, teacher at “Mihal Grameno” elementary school in Fushe Kosove

Whereas Rijad Mehmeti, Child Rights Advocate for Kosovo shares his sad story how his father had to quit working just to send him to school, sometimes stay in class or outside in the yard, wait for more than 4 hours until Rijad finishes school. “I wish all kids have teacher assistants so parents can work and provide for the family” – says Rijad while sharing his happiness that at least a few kids and families are being supported by UK Embassy.

The “Returning to the new normal” project in response to COVID-19 implemented by UNICEF started in November 2020 and is implemented in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science in Kosovo – MES, with the financial support of the Embassy of Great Britain in Kosovo. The purpose of this project is to support schools in ensuring that anti-COVID-19 preventive measures are respected, and to support children with children with disabilities and children at risk of school dropout.  

“The UK is dedicated to transforming the lives of the world’s most vulnerable, to end discrimination against disabled people and working towards inclusive education, leaving no one behind” – said the Ambassador of UK in Kosovo, Mr. Nicholas Abbott.

Kosovo still does not have accurate data on the number of children with disabilities, but it is largely acknowledged that a significant portion of them is still out of school. Lack of assistant teachers for children with disabilities in Kosovo is one of the many factors that have led to exclusion of children with disabilities from the learning process in public education institutions. Additionally, considering that Kosovo is listed among the poorest countries in Europe, most of the families of children with disabilities do not have income to ensure support for their children. As a result, thousands of children are out of school.

Lulavere Behluli – Kadriu, Head of the Division for Education of Children with Children with disabilities at MES
Lulavere Behluli – Kadriu, Head of the Division for Education of Children with Children with disabilities at MES

“Every child is special and needs tailored learning and development support. Despite having a positive attitude towards including children with disabilities, teachers lack resources and experience, role of teacher assistants in helping children with disabilities to transition from attached classes and resource centers to regular schools and classrooms is critical and needs to be fully recognized and resourced” highlight Murat Sahin, Head of UNICEF Kosovo Office.

Public institutions face low budget to grant sustainable services for the inclusion of children with disabilities in the learning process.

Lulavere Behluli – Kadriu, Head of the Division for Education of Children with Children with disabilities at MES, says that the Ministry did not allocate a budget this year for the recruitment of assistants; however, they plan to ask for a budget to recruit assistants every year in public schools where there are children with disabilities who need assistance.

“The support of UNICEF during the COVID-19 pandemic is welcome for education institutions and particularly for parents and children with disabilities as the pandemic created difficulties in the learning process for all students, but especially for children with disabilities since most of the time they need individual support and work, which is difficult to do now that the learning schedule is shorter and schools switch from one scenario to the other depending on the epidemiologic situation,” she says.

The project supported by Great Britain recruited a total of 40 assistants for children with disabilities in five municipalities. This achievement is entirely a result of cooperation with the implementing project, Kosovo Disability Forum. KDF is an umbrella organization of eight other organizations working in protection and advocacy of people with disabilities in Kosovo. KDF’s main mission is working to unify strategies, policies and movements of its member organizations in order to best represent the needs and concerns of people with disabilities in Kosovo.

Inclusion of children with disabilities in the learning process is one of the top three priorities of UNICEF Kosovo. Together with its partners, such as Great Britain, several measures were taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to support these children. In addition to recruiting assistant teachers, with the support of Great Britain, UNICEF distributed 800 tablets for children with disabilities, who were not able to attend online learning due to the lack of assistive devices such as laptops or tablets.

According to the data from the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) launched in 2020, only 53% of households in Kosovo have a computer, or tablet. Four percent of children are believed to have missed online education due to poor electronic devices or lack of electronic platforms which deprived them from the right to access in the learning process.