We can do it: Give us a chance Inclusive education in Armenia and Georgia

I can do it...
I want to do it...
Give me the opportunity to do it
People who have difficulties with movement, speech, and more have secret talents and unlimited opportunities. Governments and societies simply need to be able to make efforts to include them.

The governments of Armenia and Georgia ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. National laws made it mandatory to include people with disabilities in society, create accessible facilities, and uphold inclusive education. However, this process is moving very slowly in both countries, which does not allow society’s treatment towards children who need special education to change.

Why did we take Katie to a regular school? Because we wanted her to grow up like everyone else. We wanted Katie to learn how to write, read, add, and subtract like our two other children. Inclusive education had not been implemented in schools at the time; special schools were the best case scenario,” Katie’s father, Vepkhia Diakonashvili, said. He challenged society years ago and took his disabled daughter to public school.

It is due to her parents’ persistent efforts that Katie is now independent. She can go to the store and to the development center, she can sing, and she can make objects out of clay. Katie is 22 years old. She has mental development problems. Vepkhia Diakonashvili’s family lives in Akhaltsikhe, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Georgia.

Her father said that they went through a lot of difficulties, but it is due to the fact that Katie goes to a normal school that she can make use of all necessary things in life. “Yes, my daughter doesn’t understand fractions, but she has basic knowledge. She can write and read and she feels like a complete part of society,” Vepkhia Diakonashvili said. Her father is convinced that Katie will not stay at home like many other people with disabilities, but she will make her own money instead.

Special education teachers at Akhaltsikhe’s “Talitha Cumi” center, which translates into “rebirth” from Latin, have played a huge role in implementing inclusive education for young people with disabilities. Talitha Cumi is a day center.

People over the age of 18 who have problems with mobility and mental development come to the center. One can hear the sounds of people singing and laughing upon entering. Music, clay, and paint give these young people the opportunity to dream and to make their dreams a reality.

Elza Nadiradze is the choir’s soloist. She participates in festivals and can sing and play the piano without any difficulties. Until she began coming to the center, Elza was completely separated from society for many years. She said that she is happy she has friends now. The center was established in 2010. The center’s 18 beneficiaries are on the same path today. This is where they found what they needed: the right treatment and belief in their own strength.

The center’s music therapist, Anahit Anesyan, works to make sure that the list of songs includes something everyone likes. She tries to do everything to ensure that these young people with disabilities will feel free and happy and that they will leave the center every day feeling great.

When these people were in school, inclusive education was not yet implemented in the Georgian educational system. This is why many of them went to special schools. Some of them studied in these schools, while others’ parents took them out of school after 4th grade and kept them at home.

Before they started coming to the center, they were very withdrawn and impatient. They couldn’t sit for long and they were afraid. I won’t even speak about their creativity,” Melano Chilingarashvili said. She is the art therapist and special education teacher at this center. She sometimes ends up working on one detail for three to six months.

Now, their creations are displayed throughout the rooms in the center. These works of art are also displayed in exhibitions.

Georgia ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December of 2014. Article 24 of the convention says that states must ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system. According to Article 35 of the Georgian Constitution, every person has the right to receive an education.

As far as how likely it is for people with disabilities to make their dreams into a reality in Georgia, the head of the Regional Association of Samtskhe-Javakheti Toleranti, Tsira Meskhishvili, said that there are many problems that still remain unsolved. According to her, this is not only a problem in Georgia, but in several other countries as well. “Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland resolved the issue of making sure that people with disabilities are included in society over the past few decades.” According to her, it was a good thing that Georgia ratified the UN convention. “Many issues will be resolved due to the convention. The Georgian government has already drafted programs. But as far as how much those programs are being implemented- that’s another question entirely.”

The problem is especially present in villages. “Many centers are being opened in Georgia and inclusive programs are being implemented with the support of the state and society. However, the stigma still remains. Many children, especially in villages, are stuck at home. They can’t go to school because the infrastructure is not advanced enough. Also, they don’t go because parents hold on to stigmas; they don’t want others to know that their children have disabilities. Society is not yet ready to understand that,” the association’s leader said.

She emphasized that even regional government centers where people receive social services are not accessible. Not all educational and cultural centers in Akhaltsikhe have the structural means to accommodate people with disabilities. “There are no elevators even in the buildings where they live. If there are no elevators for people to leave and move around the city, then what are they supposed to do? They can’t jump from the third or fourth floor. This issue needs to be resolved first.”

No one is protected from acquiring a disability. It can happen at any time,” Dato Gabodze said, who is now in a wheelchair due to a terrible accident.

A car accident that took place nine years ago left 34-year-old Dato Gabodze unable to move on his own. He studied international economocs for his profession, but works as a television operator. Gabodze also finds it difficult to move around Akhaltsikhe on his own. Entertainment centers, stores, and other public buildings are inaccessible for people with mobility issues. They are unable to go to these places without assistance. Dato Gabodze believes that people with disabilities remain at home not so much due to stigma, but due to the fact that their environment does not have proper accommodations.

They might have everything at home, but even the simplest things, such as buying food, are impossible without someone’s help. This is a serious problem,” he said, and stated that he is lucky to have an aide.

Special educator Nino Nadiradze, who works at the Number 1 school in Akhaltsikhe and is an inclusive education expert in Samtskhe-Javakheti, said that the biggest problem that parents worry about is how to get their children who have mobility issues to school. Inclusive education began to be implemented in Georgia in 2009, but there are still many difficulties. The program was implemented in ten secondary schools, and then it expanded. “In the beginning, society had difficulties accepting and understanding all of that. When inclusive education was introduced, it was difficult for teachers, for parents who had children with disabilities, and for those who had able-bodied children,” Nino Nadiradze said.

There was no such thing in Georgian society for a disabled child to leave the house, and especially not for them to sit next to able-bodied children. Teachers also reacted to this aggressively,” the teacher said, and added, “This ‘conflict’ was resolved thanks to the Ministry of Education of Georgia. First, teachers went to special classes, and then parents who were for and against this practice went through training.” One of the strategic steps taken by the ministry was to hire team of professionals in schools composed of special educators, psychologists, and speech therapists. Nadiradze agreed that inclusive education also changes the mood in the classroom.

The Georgian government has not established a specific year as the time limit for all public schools to have inclusive education, but the association agreement between Georgia and the European Union makes that a compulsory condition.

There are 8 state schools in Akhaltsikhe, 2 of which have inclusive education (Number 1 and Number 5). And the Number 7 school only has inclusive education classes.

Unlike Georgia, the Armenian government has clearly stated that all schools in the country need to implement inclusive education programs by the year 2025.
Adelaida needs to receive special education. Her life changed dramatically 6 years ago when she went to a public school like all other children. Her special needs did not cause other children to ignore her. Just the opposite- when the others began to treat her kindly and include her, Adelaida integrated immediately.

Children do not believe in stigmas on their own; it’s adults who enforce such beliefs in children,” Adelaida’s teacher, Isabella Margaryan said.

Her teacher remembers that Adelaida was aggressive in the beginning, but when she saw how kindly the other children treated her, her aggression went away and she became a full member of the class.

Adelaida is a student at the Azatan Secondary School in the Shirak province. As a result of a stroke when she was much younger, she has problems with her musculoskeletal system and with her mental development. Adelaida started to have big dreams after sitting at the same desk as children her age.
Her mother, Armine Davtyan, agrees that going to school has a positive impact on children with disabilities after seeing the impact it had on Adelaida.

Narek’s family lives in the Azatan village. The school in the village does have an inclusive education program, but Narek can only go to that school when the state provides him with a special car and wheelchair and when the school builds a proper bathroom and hires proper professionals who work with children who have disabilities.

Schools began to be accessible for children with disabilities in the Shirak region in 2012. There has been some progress over the years and schools have been fitted with certain necessities, but as Narek’s mother, Azatuhi Vardkhatunyan, says, there is still transportation to consider. Azatuhi’s husband goes to another country to work every year in order to take care of the family’s needs, but she alone cannot take care of Narek’s transportation.

Hayarpi Poghosyan, a social worker at the Armenian Caritas charity organization, believes that the work of social workers is also important during this process. Social workers will find children who have special needs and who do not go to preschool or school because of stigmas and other difficulties they face because of their families and societies. She believes that work needs to begin in the family.

According to inclusive education experts, the integration of children with disabilities into society needs to start before they go to school because that is when their self-awareness develops. However, there are very few institutions in Armenia that have created similar opportunities for children with special needs.

Gyumri’s “Tsiatsan” preschool does not have inclusive education, but it opened its doors to little Yura four years ago. The entire preschool knew who Yura was from the minute he came to school for the first time because of his hyperactive behavior.

Yura’s preschool teacher, Armine Abrahamyan, described how there were problems with the other parents in the beginning, but those problems were resolved when she explained that Yura should be able to go to school just like the other children. Yura has autism.

PROJECT AUTHORS: Lusine Budaghyan, Aravot.am, Armenia. Luiza Sukiasyan, Aravot.am, Armenia. Tako Peikrishvili, Sknews.ge, Georgia.