Samira’s story

Attending a vocational school that is not a special education center

By Brian Sokol
© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
19 December 2019

Wearing her red goalball[1] jersey, Samira reaches across the kitchen table and runs several fingers of her left hand over the braille characters dimpling a white sheet of paper. Her mother, Dorca, smiles and takes the page back from Samira, spins it towards herself and continues translating her daughter’s homework into Spanish.

It’s early afternoon and Samira has a lot planned. The sixteen-year-old has already finished her day’s classes at Escuela Arquitecto Tomás Romero Pereira, but it’s a long way from her home in San Antonio to the National Secretary of Sports in Paraguay’s capital of Asuncion. With a shrill cry, Samira’s little brother Bruno runs through the door from the outside. “I don’t want to take a shower,” he shouts. But before he can dart past her and into the bedroom down the hall, Samira has caught him and lifted him into the air, laughing as she carries him towards the bathroom and the waiting shower. Both hands holding Bruno, she navigates the hallway adeptly, her steps sure and confident. “You have to leave in 20 minutes if you’re going to make it on time,” calls Dorca from the kitchen table.

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[1] Goalball is an organized, competitive team sport designed specifically for athletes with a visual impairment.

© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
Paraguay/2019/Sokol

This is a typical Thursday in the life of Samira Rios, a star pupil, enthusiastic athlete and committed volunteer. It’s hard to believe the number of things that she is able to squeeze into the confines of a 24-hour day—not least of all given the fact that Samira is blind.

“I want a work in the social area, I want to make a change. I am very interested in studying foreign affairs, maybe psychology. I want to be independent, have a stable job and make a family,” says Samira during an interview at her school.

She attends a vocational high school that isn’t a “special education” facility for blind children. In fact, Samira tested into the standard curriculum institution with the 3rd highest scores of anyone taking the admissions exam. “Because I have a disability, it wasn’t necessary for me to take the test, but I didn’t want a free pass—I don’t think that would have been fair,” she recalls. “I wanted to be admitted on the same grounds as other kids.”

One of the reasons that Samira has been able to excel academically is due to the commitment to education that her mother has personified. Dorca studied braille for two years in order to be able to translate Samira’s schoolwork.

© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

It has been less than a decade since Paraguay’s government passed a law creating the system of inclusive education. As a result, Samira and other children with disabilities have had the opportunity to study in regular schools, alongside children without disabilities. Samira is well aware that people older than her did not have the same educational opportunities that she does, noting, “I am very lucky to have access to education and study in this school. It is an honor.” She continues, “Before the inclusion law, schools and teachers were less prepared. There were many challenges and obstacles to study. Nowadays, education is a right. Inclusive education is improving but there is much work left to do.”

Samira believes that “inclusive education should always consider the teacher and the student. The education system needs to provide more training for teachers and staff on inclusive education. The government should have more willingness and dedication to provide support for implementation of the inclusive education law. More financing is needed.”

© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

Inclusive education can be a contentious topic. There are many different interpretations of exactly what it means, and Samira has a very clear personal definition. “Inclusive education is the opportunity to participate—not in the same way—but with equal rights and with the same actions. For example, if in Physical Education class the activity is to run, then we should all run—including me—but I would need the assistance of a classmate to run together holding my hand or guiding me through with specific instructions.”

Always outspoken, Samira has strong feelings on not just the definition of inclusive education, but on the political and social grounds behind it. “Inclusive education is fundamental, it is a law. If education is not accessible, then they are violating our rights. Children with disabilities are also persons—we have the right to learn. Inclusive education is a must because each student has the right to learn and acquire new knowledge.”

One of the teachers who is making a difference in Samira’s life and education is Physical Education instructor Victor Machuca Diaz. He’s been working with Samira since she was in 4th grade. Samira was the first blind child that Victor ever taught, and he has strong feelings on the role that inclusive education can have in building a more just society.

“For me, I believe that inclusive education has benefits and makes a positive impact. It’s important for helping to avoid discrimination,” instructor Machuca says.

In 2015 Victor attuned an inclusive education training provided by the Paraguayan Ministry of Education. His approach is one of adaptive education. “It is fundamental to adapt the system to Samira and not Samira to the system, so I guide her vocally through the steps, actions and movement she needs to take,” says Victor. “I always stand in front of Samira and give her instructions face to face. In case she does not understand my instruction, I will hold her arms, legs or body to show her the movement. Everyone has different attitudes and needs; it is important to learn how to address and treat them.”

“While Samira is not able to do all the exercises or play all types of sports, she participates as much as possible. During team sports, she tends to stay on the bench and does a written assignment regarding the sport played by her classmates,” says Victor. However, resources limit the amount that Samira and other students with disabilities are able to participate. “For example, it would be possible to play some sports if we had the adequate equipment such as a ball with a rattle, but the school hasn’t been able to find one,” he notes.

 

© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

Fortunately, Samira isn’t allowing anything to slow down her pursuit of education and a full life. As on other Thursday afternoons, she makes her way to National Secretary of Sports and joins her teammates—who have just returned from a goalball tournament in Buenos Aires—for training and a match.

Several days later Samira was handing out literature to drivers on a busy street, participating in a traffic safety program organized by UNICEF Paraguay. Afterwards she spoke to a class of young internally displaced children, advising them of their rights—a topic that she has become something of an expert on.

“We all have a right to grow and thrive,” she says—and in both those regards Samira is leading by example.

© UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol