Schools should improve access for Georgian with disabilities, activists say
Europe, July 28 2012
Georgia has invested significant time and money in efforts to integrate persons with disabilities into mainstream education, but parents say many schools remain ill-equipped to take them.
In Soviet times, children with disabilities were educated separately at special boarding schools, but under a programme partly funded by the Norwegian government and launched in 2005, they have begun to be included in mainstream classes.
Head teachers are now forbidden to refuse to admit children with disabilities, though schools may not always be ready to take them. Of 180 schools in the capital Tbilisi, only 80 are fully adapted for persons with disabilities.
Vika Gurjiani, 12, has cerebral palsy, and her mother Violeta decided to send her to the school nearest her house, although it was not specially adapted.
“It was hard for us to go to another region; it would have been a lot of time and effort. So although the school hasn’t been adapted, the head teacher did not refuse to take her. Vika was accepted by the pupils and teachers,” Violeta Gurjiani said.
A pilot project to integrate education was introduced in ten schools in Tbilisi during 2005, and expanded three years later. Marika Zakareishvili, who heads the integration programme at the Georgian education ministry, said early experiences helped officials understand what needed to be done.
“The authorities will resolve this problem by preparing teachers and teaching them how to work with such children,” she said.
Zakareishvili said 500,000 laris, the equivalent of 300,000 US dollars, would be spent annually from 2012 onwards to encourage integrated education. “Compared with the 40,000 laris [24,000 dollars a year] we were spending a few years ago it’s a lot, but it still isn’t not enough,” she added.
A lot of work still needs to be done to ensure that different disabilities are catered for, she said.
“Children have different disabilities, and accordingly they have different potentials,” she said. “We are working on an individual education plan, if not for every child individually, then at least one for children with mental disabilities and another for those who are physically disabled.”
Rati Ionatamishvili, head of the Coalition for Independent Life, which works on disability issues, said schools needed full access for wheelchair users.
“It isn’t enough to provide schools with ramps. It’s necessary to make sure the children can move around freely inside the building,” he said. “The width of the doors must be sufficient to allow wheelchairs through. The door handles must be at the right height so that children in wheelchairs can reach them. Another problem is moving from one floor to another.”
Ionatamishvili said that while the situation was a lot better than it was a few years ago, progress now appeared to have frozen.
“All schools are supposed to be adapted to a common standard, but in reality that hasn’t happened,” he said.
He said children with disabilities’s different requirements in physical education classes had not been fully taken into account.
Gurjiani agreed, and said that while her daughter Vika loved physical education and benefited from using the exercise bike, she was unable to participate in some of the other activities.
“It would be good if an individual programme could be created for those like Vika,” she said.
Maia Mchedlishvili, a teacher of entry-level classes at a school in Tbilisi, said parents often had to carry children with disabilities up to the first floor.
“There are three disabled children in my class. It would be good to install handrails along the walls for them, so those who find it difficult to walk could use them and wouldn’t have to ask for help from their classmates,” she said.
Maia Bibileishvili, head of the Society for Disabled Children and Their Families, said the government now needed to improve training for teachers.
“There are training sessions, but that isn’t enough. They need to train up dedicated specialists,” she said.
Tea Gognadze, headmaster at a Tbilisi school, said that most pupils reacted well to schoolmates with disabilities. The problems often came from teachers, who did not welcome the extra work, he said.
“It’s a mindset issue that we need to change. Children with disabilities are members of society like everyone else and they have a right to an education.”