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Pilot project helps children living with disabilities in communities of Tajikistan

By Steve Nettleton

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan – Speech therapist Samad Shoev assists Aziza, 3, in correctly pronouncing various vowels by gently using his hands to help shape her lips. "Ee, ah, oh," he says, adjusting Aziza's mouth with each sound. The girl attempts to repeat the sounds, achieving a passable pronunciation.

Aziza is autistic. When she arrived at this special pre-school in Dushanbe, she couldn't say a word.

"The first time Aziza came to this kindergarten, she was out of contact," says Mr. Shoev. "The first week, she just ignored my questions. She would just leave without any sign of interest in talking to me."

Now, Mr. Shoev and Aziza have developed a 'common language'. While not proper Tajik, it allows them to communicate and understand each other. "I changed my approach and got a doll she likes," the therapist continues. "We started playing together. After a short time, she began to respond to me."

Inclusion instead of isolation

Mr. Shoev and Aziza are partners in a UNICEF-supported pilot learning project for children living with disabilities in Tajikistan. Their school, Kindergarten No. 151, prepares children to integrate into the local school system.

The centre also works with parents, offering consultation and training. It is part of a broader, community-based initiative to develop alternatives to institutionalizing children – an effort both to boost learning and to protect them from abuse – through a strategy based on inclusion instead of isolation.

The children have been referred here by a psychological consultation service, which works to assess the needs of children living with disabilities.

Benefits to society

Kindergarten No. 151 has helped more than 200 children with rehabilitation, including speech therapy and motor skills development.

Stasik, 6, has been coming here for three years. Like Aziza, he is autistic. At first, he was terrified to be separated from his mother. Now he has learned to speak and moves freely around on his own, playing with classmates.

"The practice in our kindergarten shows that integration of children with disabilities with other children benefits both society and the children themselves," says Mr. Shoev. "And it creates an environment where the children can be free from thinking about their problems."



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