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Toy libraries: Opening a door for children with disabilities

© UNICEF Serbia / Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
Twins at one of the toy libraries throughout Serbia as part of the community-based Rehabilitation Project assisted by UNICEF and save the Children UK

KIKINDA, SERBIA - Nevena sits at a small table, totally absorbed in her task - making a little fish out of clay.

She has created a wide, open mouth with a wooden spoon and drawn a beautiful design on its sides with a piece of wire.

"Yes!" she says, finally satisfied with her work, and presents it to the teacher.

This is the first time Nevena has left her home since she was born, brought by her mother on a miraculous journey to the toy library, just a few streets away from the house where she spent her first 11 years. Parents in this society still tend to hide children with disabilities because they are embarrassed or ashamed.

Some 15 children are enjoying making fish, dice, boxes or jewellery (necklaces) when we enter the small house, the interior cheerfully painted in yellow, pink and blue. The toys are neatly arranged on shelves and the children are sharing the tools they need to work with clay, as part of the workshop called Pueri Terrae (Children of the Earth).

Milena is sitting next to Nevena on a little chair. While creating a dice, carefully putting on the dots, she's delighted to have the opportunity to talk into a tape-recorder. "I come here every day. I like it," she says, and then, pointing out another three girls, she adds: "We go to the same class. We're fifth grade." She is referring to a special school which enrols only children with mild mental disabilities.

“Ever since Nevena was born I’ve tried to hide from the neighbours and everybody else that something is wrong with her. But now, thanks to this place, I’m not ashamed any more”

The majority of the children who visit the library in the northern Serbian provincial town of Kikinda have mental disabilities. There are no schools in Serbia and hardly any other form of institution that might help Nevena and other children with moderate and severe disabilities to develop their capacities, play and socialise.

“Ever since Nevena was born I’ve tried to hide from the neighbours and everybody else that something is wrong with her. But now, thanks to this place, I’m not ashamed any more,” her mother says.

This workshop is just one part of a project, launched three years ago by Save the Children Fund UK and UNICEF, to help the integration and development of children with disabilities and to increase the level of understanding and acceptance of these children in the community.

"There is a great deal of prejudice against people with disabilities in our society. Some people are ashamed if a member of their family has a disability. This exclusion, discrimination and negative attitude is often a greater barrier to their participation in everyday life than the disability itself," says the project coordinator. "We had one boy who left his house for the first time in his life to visit the library. He was 21." 

"Parents must break through that wall of shame. I felt similar at the beginning. When I took my son Nikola for the first time for some tests at the hospital, many doctors behaved in a way that made me feel I was responsible for the child's condition. The toy library has become a second home for me," saysthe mother of 7-year-old Nikola who suffers from autism. She is the most active parent at the library.

"This is where Nikola spoke his first words and started to communicate. If there was any paid position, I would gladly quit my office job and come to work here," she says.

After a successful pilot project in the town of Novi Pazar in the south-west of Serbia, toy libraries where children with disabilities play together with their peers from the local community, have been set up in 20 towns throughout Serbia.

Young experts, including teachers, special education teachers and psychologists, work in them on a voluntary basis. At least once a week, special workshops are organised - creative ones for the children, including drama, drawing and terracotta; and discussions for parents, where they can share their experiences.

"Everything is left up to the parents. They feel isolated, they have huge problems and there is no one to turn to. Many of them are poor, some of them suffer from the same mental disabilities as their children. It is usually the mothers who bear the entire burden of child care. Sometimes the fathers cannot accept that their children are different and start to drink and the mothers, who cannot manage on their own, often become ill," explains Sandra Babic, a special education teacher volunteer.

Associations of parents of children with disabilities have existed in towns such as Kikinda for over 30 years. However, because they lacked funding or premises, many parents did not even know of their existence. The association in Kikinda became more active when the toy library was opened. The local authority has donated premises and, for the first time, has set aside funds from the budget for the association.

"The problem is that there's no early intervention. Children with disabilities are often not registered before the age of seven, when they are due to start school. We don't have any pre-school facility for children with disabilities, and although they officially have the right to attend kindergartens with other children, this rarely happens in practice and depends entirely on the  goodwill of the teacher", says Biljana Koldan, another teacher.

This team of enthusiasts, all of whom also work at the special school for children with disabilities, are trying to get permission and funding to organise a kindergarten at the toy library in the morning. They have sent their proposal to the Ministry of Social Affairs but have yet to receive a response.

"Everybody says we have to be patient and we’ve already achieved a lot in just a year. But you must understand, we, the parents, want improvements for our children right now. We don't have time to wait for years for the money to be found or projects to be approved. Our children don't have time. They're growing up and it might be too late for them," a parent says.

Official statistics in Serbia do not include data on people with disabilities.  According to research from 1993 there were about 142,700 children with disabilities out of three million children living in the country. Experts believe, however, that the actual number was higher.  

About 6% of these children get places in special schools or receive some kind of professional assistance. Others go to regular schools but, lacking assistance, drop out early, some even before the fourth grade. Children living in rural areas are practically excluded from all services. The number of special schools is small and they are concentrated in the larger towns and cities. This means that those children who attend them are often separated from their parents, which is a severe violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Only children with mild learning difficulties and some children with physical impairments, about 8,300 in all, attend one of the 233 special schools operating in Serbia. In addition there are 24 institutions which accommodate about 4,000 children. The rest live behind the closed doors of their homes.

The number of children with disabilities is unknown as the severe social stigma associated with being disabled is such that many parents do not register their children even though it means they forgo benefits. The introduction of toy libraries has helped to break these barriers of isolation. It has improved integration and quality of life of children with disabilities and of their families in the municipalities of Central and Eastern Serbia. This is a good example of how people themselves can bring about change when they get organised and work together,” says Ann-Lis Svensson, UNICEF Area Representative.

Both the experts and parents are very proud of the success of their first exhibition and sale of the children’s terracotta ornaments. “The exhibition was organised during the watermelon festival, a really very big event here. Some people heard about us for the first time and everybody liked our children’s work. One boy looked at the pieces and said, ‘I’d never be able to do it so nicely’. That’s a great success,” the teachers say.

The premises of the toy library are used at weekends for children’s birthday parties. “In this way we manage to raise additional funds and we’ve bought an air-conditioning unit,” they say with pride.

A strip of wild but beautiful garden is all that separates the library from the local theatre, which stages plays for children with disabilities and other children from the town. Some kindergartens visit the library, and parents bring their children to play there. It is the place where children with disabilities and other children can mix and play together. In this way, they integrate into society.

“The toy library, a new and attractive place in town, has helped us stimulate the integration of children with disabilities into the community on the basis of equality,” says Svetlana Marojevic, UNICEF Education Officer. “In the longer term, we hope the improved status and understanding of children with disabilities will improve their access to mainstream services and activities and also encourage the development of much needed specialised services.”

It’s a big success, when a parent reaches the point of saying, ‘I know now, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

By Ljiljana Cvekic



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