Digital books and less prejudice
Multimedia technology that changes the lives of children in Paraguay
José had no place in the Paraguayan educational system because it did not adapt to his physical condition, generated from cerebral palsy that restricts his ability to walk. Until he arrived at a school where boys and girls with and without disabilities each learn at their own pace thanks to a secret: accessible digital books and teaching free from prejudice.
José arrives smiling at his school and greets everyone who is waiting for him at the gate. He is in sixth grade at the Medalla Milagrosa school in Limpio, a small Paraguayan city, 20 kilometers from the capital, Asunción, where he has attended in person since 2022 and where, he says, he feels comfortable and happy.
José spreads joy at 11 years old and is very talkative. His favorite subject is soccer, he consumes everything that has to do with this sport. He also loves his Play Station and helps at the family business, where he oversees collecting the purchases of the customers. José was born in 2011 with cerebral palsy, which restricts his mobility, that is, he requires a wheelchair to be able to move. "Much of what José is today is due to his current school," says Montserrat Ramírez, his mother.
The Medalla Milagrosa School in Limpio is a model of inclusion. In its classrooms, sign language is taught from preschool to ninth grade and emphasis is placed on caring for children with disabilities. They started working 15 years ago and today they are a benchmark for the Paraguayan educational sector.
“I really didn't know the school,” admits Montserrat. A relative had told her about the Medalla Milagrosa Public School, how they treated the children and that it is an institution where a disability is not an impediment for learning.
Taking this philosophy into account, UNICEF began to implement a pilot plan there which, at first, is yielding encouraging results. It is about the use of accessible digital books. The material has narrated audio and the option to interact with the book through an on-screen sign language interpreter. In this way, all students, hearing or not, can understand what is happening and actively participate in the classroom process.
José is one of the students who uses this book and says that it helps him to understand the class better and, above all, to be able to do homework, which is why he actively participates in school activities. A very different reality from the one he experienced in the other schools where he was. The day-to-day life for a child with a disability is a very big challenge, especially in a country like Paraguay, where inclusion in all sectors is still pending.
“I went through all the schools in Limpio hoping that they would take José into account, but it was impossible,” says Montserrat. José was in four schools in the city before learning about the Medalla Milagrosa School. “They never took him into account. I felt that for the teachers it was as if I was going to be a hindrance, one more burden” she recounts. Montserrat says that one of the most difficult moments she had to live was when she told the principal of a school that José couldn't walk and she replied: “children like that, we don't accept them”. “He was always left out. He did not participate in the exhibitions; the teachers did not give him homework. He was always excluded and did not feel part of the group”, says Montserrat.
But all of that is forgotten now.
Liliana González is a teacher at the Medalla Milagrosa school and points out that the accessible digital book is a great help to ensure that all her students learn and participate in class, whether they have a disability or not. "José has had an important evolution," says Professor González.
The idea of the book is precisely to make the classes have a real inclusive effect. The accessible digital books project is a great tool that effectively allows students to have the same opportunity to learn in each classroom, says César Martínez, General Director of Inclusive Education of the Paraguayan Ministry of Education and Sciences (MEC). “Paraguay and Uruguay are two of the first countries where these programs are being developed. It is a project that changes the paradigm of our education. This makes us understand that there are different ways of learning” says Martínez.
"I always wanted to be a soccer goalkeeper, but I think I would also like to be a YouTuber when I grow up", says José, already in his room at home. Next to him, his brother Axel, 6 years old, accompanies the talk. “I really like my school because I made a lot of friends and now, I learn a lot. I feel very comfortable, and my teachers help me” says José.
The change that José has shown is significant and, above all, very positive, says his mother Montserrat. “Before, for me it was almost torture to make him go to school, because he cried, he didn't feel like it. He never wanted to go. But since he is going to Medalla Milagrosa it is the opposite, he wakes up in a good mood, he is eager to go. It is something else”, says Montserrat.
José asks about the equipment we have for the recording and the interview. He is curious about how we organize everything. Where we are from. How do we do what we do and the series of questions progresses as we continue on our way to the patio, where José and Axel will have a soccer match, which they do almost every day.
As good football lovers, in the house of José and Axel there are plenty of balls. They choose one and José goes to the goal. So Axel is the one who practices archery. “You have to see me, I'm a real crack” says Axel, defiant, which makes José laugh.
Montserrat says that as happens with all brothers, José and Axel have their run-ins, but in general, they live well together.
“I spent a long time looking for a place where José could feel good, and honestly it is a very important achievement for him to feel part of a group, to feel that he can make friends”, explains Montserrat.
Karimi Yaluff, principal and founder of the Medalla Milagrosa school, says that cases like José's are proof that education can be fully inclusive with the right tools. Yaluff says that when they opened the school 15 years ago, they focused on boys and girls with disabilities inspired by their son Thobías, who was born with a hearing disability and whom they could not take to an educational institution where he could fully develop as a student. However, director Yaluff says that over time they understood that boys and girls with and without disabilities learn in the same way if they are given the same opportunity. Thus, they began to work on learning systems with the presence of a sign language interpreter in each class, in addition to organizing tasks in video format for their students. “We were already doing something similar to what we have now with the digital book. I think it is a great step to show that it is possible to achieve true inclusion in Paraguayan education” says Yaluff.
The goal of UNICEF's project with regards to the inclusion of these accessible digital books is to cover at least 30 schools by 2023 and then to achieve with the Paraguayan State that this project expands to all educational institutions in the country.
Germán, the model
German Rodríguez Balmaceda is the linguistic model of the Miraculous Medal school, that is, he is the deaf person whose first language was sign language and who shows others his language and identity in sign language. Through an interpreter, Professor Rodríguez tells his story. He says that since he was little he suffered a lot from using his hands to communicate, because that was forbidden. Only over the years, when sign language was accepted, did he begin to have more freedom and to communicate better.
Rodríguez believes that the family must be open and predisposed to acquire the sign language so that it can later be replicated in society. He says that he likes working at Medalla Milagrosa because he manages to develop the identity of each student, as well as showing that if there is a will it is possible to achieve greater inclusion in Paraguayan schools.
"My dream is to see José being more independent," says Montserrat, as she watches how he plays ball with his brother. The first day we met José at his school, after talking about soccer clubs, the news about Messi and other world soccer stars, he said goodbye with a question: "Can I be your friend now?"