How a boy and inclusive education changed an entire community in Serbia

New learning environments for children with disabilities creates a widespread shift in attitudes

By UNICEF Serbia
A teacher helps a student at his desk, Serbia
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Vas
30 August 2017

SUBOTICA, Serbia, 30 August 2017 – When Atila Komaromi was born 18 years ago, doctors feared for his life. His limbs were severely damaged, and his parents were told that his life was at stake.

Ultimately Atila pulled through, and his parents decided to leave him in the care of staff at Kolevka, a residential institution for children with disabilities in the Serbian town of Subotica. He spent the first three years of his life there. After an initial assessment found that he had profound intellectual disability, he went on to spend the next six years at another residential institution.

His mother visited him only at Kolevka. His father never saw him.

And all three of them never knew that Atila could have had a different life.

“Sin of the system”

In 2008, Serbia reorganized its residential institutions, and Atila was transferred back to Kolevka. The staff there soon discovered that he was both physically and mentally developed beyond all expectations. They immediately created an intensive programme for him.

“You can’t but wonder what would have happened with him had someone treated him properly from birth,” says psychologist Margarita Berček. It's a “sin of the system”, she says, the way someone’s misjudgement has irrevocably impacted the life of an innocent child.

Margarita is a member of the Inclusive Education Support Network in Serbia that works with UNICEF to expand opportunities for children with disabilities. UNICEF helps develop inclusive education policies in Serbia, supporting all sides of the education sector to achieve the right to a quality education for every child.

A boy in a wheelchair chats with his friends, Serbia
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Vas
Atila talks with some of his friends at school. His teacher, psychologist, and parents in the school have all noticed the positive impact he has had on the children in the community.
Changing attitudes towards inclusive education

In 2012, Atila underwent another assessment, and was categorized as having moderate intellectual disability. He was soon placed with a foster family and assigned a personal assistant.

Finally, Atila began attending a mainstream school – the Zdravko Gložanski primary school in the town of Bečej. And with him came a shift in attitudes about the importance of inclusive education in the school itself.

Everyone involved in school life – teachers, students, parents – was prepared for Atila’s participation in the classroom. The school built a wheelchair ramp, the doorsteps were removed, and a special desk was made for Atila.

Margarita, who developed a strong bond with Atila, remembers him saying: “I want to go to school also and do everything they do.” Thanks to his unrelenting optimism and perseverance, and the devoted work of the staff in the Zdravko Gložanski primary school, he quickly learned to read and write, and speak much more audibly.

A positive impact on the community

Not only has Atila benefitted immensely from his new school and community, but he has also had a positive influence on those around him.

Margarita Berček says that Atila has had an immeasurable impact on Bečej, a town that is now known as one of the best examples of inclusive education.

Atila’s classmates say that he is a great friend who brings positive energy to the classroom. His teacher, Milena Čolak, remembers how one student’s mother told her that she is convinced that her daughter would grow up to be a more considerate person thanks to Atila.

Milena is even more assured. “I think that they already are much better people than they used to be before they met Atila,” she says.