In Paraguay, a law mandating that children with disabilities would be able to study in regular schools, along with children without disabilities.
Perched in his wheelchair, Arturo rolls into the room, one arm pointing toward the sky, a smile etched across his face. His mother, Nilda, grins and shakes her head, wearing an amused expression of loving, if slightly tired, adoration. Arturo gestures towards his digital tablet and Nilda hands it to him.
“How are you?” she asks. Arturo reaches to the screen and presses a glowing button. A mechanical voice answers from a speaker in the tablet. “Happy,” it says, as Arturo looks up at his mother. His smile broadening, he grasps his chair’s wheels and scoots himself into the bedroom where his father, Carlos, has turned on the TV.\
“It’s Saturday,” says Nilda. “He’s crazy for Dragon Ball Z. He watches the four-hour marathon every week…” Like many 11-year-olds, Arturo loves Power Rangers and cartoons. He has a vast imagination and likes to pretend that the family’s old, broken VCR is an air conditioner that he operates by remote control. Where Arturo differs from other children is that he lives with cerebral palsy (CP), a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. In Arturo’s case, it prevents him from being able to walk or speak. What it doesn’t prevent him from doing, is learning.
Eight years ago, the Paraguayan government passed a law mandating that children with disabilities would be able to study in regular schools, along with children without disabilities. When Nilda learned of this, she set out to make sure that her third and youngest son, Arturo, would be educated and included in a way that her eldest son, Ariel, now 23, was not. Both of the boys are affected by CP, however, “when Ariel was growing up, children with disabilities didn’t go to school. There were no public schools that would accept him, only a special education center that was far away and we couldn’t access,” recalls Nilda.
“But for Arturo, it’s different. There’s a school nearby that he’s been attending since preschool,” she says. “Each year he’s able to participate more and more in school activities with his classmates. For the past 2 years, he’s been joining in Physical Education classes with the other children. He really enjoys it! He also participated in the school parade.”
The digital tablet, which Arturo uses to communicate and study, is a new addition to his life and education. It was recently provided to him by a Foundation (a non-profit organization that provides integrated rehabilitation services to children and adolescents from ages 0-18 with neurological, muscular and skeletal disabilities), which he has been part of for the last 4 years. Arturo and Nilda travel to the Foundation’s medical center for regular therapy sessions.
“The tablet has helped him a lot. He used to communicate through pictograms, but now with the tablet he uses augmentative and alternative communication,” says Nilda. “This helps him to interact with people and improve his social skills. The app provides him feedback with sound, allowing him to communicate better. Also, he is able to play games with his friends on the tablet.” When he comes home from school, Arturo continues learning by studying grammar and practicing words, sounds and syllables with his mother on the tablet.
The greatest value of inclusive education, according to Nilda, is that “including children with disabilities in school may reduce discrimination across society. Over time, people will be more accepting and tolerant of differences.”
Nilda isn’t the only person who feels this way. Arturo’s current teacher, Maria Elizabeth Cañete Torres, has a similar point of view. “Access to education is a human right—it’s everyone’s right,” she says. “Before, children with disabilities weren’t included, they were left behind.” She has already seen a change in the way that people with disabilities are treated and believes that inclusive education will lead to a decrease in discrimination and help to create a more conscious, tolerant environment.
Maria Elizabeth finds that inclusive education has been valuable not only for Arturo, but for her other students as well. “It’s beneficial because they mutually help each other. For example, there are students that don’t know how to use a digital tablet. Arturo teaches them that and they’re able to help him with other things.”
Arturo is the first child with a disability who Maria Elizabeth has taught, and the first to attend the school. “At the beginning it was hard, because we didn’t know each other. But I’ve learned to adapt methodologies for him, which help the entire class to understand the lessons because we start from the basics.”
When asked what characteristic makes for an effective inclusive educator, Maria Elizabeth replied, “perseverance is the most important trait. You need to motivate children to help their classmates or people with disabilities by including them in every aspect of life—be it in the classroom, community or their family. Perseverance is a channel to reach success because it involves optimism.”
While the Ministry of Education provides teachers with a degree of support, and organizations like the Foundation where Arturo goes, offer resources as they’re able, inclusive education ultimately comes down to the individual teachers. On her own time, Maria Elizabeth researches new ways to adapt her teaching practices and meet the needs of Arturo and other students, watching YouTube videos and reading about alternate learning methodologies.
Being a great inclusive educator is challenging and is not something that comes naturally to all teachers. “Arturo has had good as well as bad experiences with teachers. There are teachers who try their hardest to support Arturo, and others that didn’t put in much effort,” recalls Nilda. She’s very happy with the way that Maria Elizabeth has been able to engage Arturo, noting that this year he has learned to spell his name.
While Arturo’s disability prevents him from meeting some of the competencies that his classmates have attained, Maria Elizabeth feels that it’s important for him to continue to proceed though school with the same children. The value of inclusive education isn’t merely the content taught in class—much of it stems from social interaction with peers. Nilda agrees.
“In school Arturo is learning, but just as importantly he is meeting different people and gaining experience by socializing with other children,” said Nilda.
She continues, “I won’t always be here to look after him, so he needs to know how to get along in the world. Having access to school is part of that. I’m so proud of what he has achieved and what we are continuing to achieve with him.”
“The greatest challenge,” says Maria Elizabeth, “is guiding Arturo so that in the future he’ll be able to make his dreams come true. Every child has their dreams, and everyone has the right to not be discriminated against.”