For many children with disabilities and their parents in Kyrgyzstan, the first day of school is a difficult experience. In Kyrgyzstan, children with disabilities are mostly funneled into “special schools”. Many parents would prefer to choose a mainstream school over a special school for their children, but the pressure to choose special schools is strong. Parents worry that attending special schools will make it even more difficult for their children to make friends among their peers, obtain a quality education, and emerge well-equipped for their own social and professional development.
Nurdan Daniyat uluu is nine years old and lives with his parents and three brothers in Kok-Jar on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Nurdan is visually impaired and received official certification of this in early childhood. Despite operations, Nurdan’s condition did not improve. Needless to say, besides his visual impairment, Nurdan is a normal boy; he plays with his brothers, with his dog Bobik and is a fan of construction projects with his toy tool kit. Doctors and teachers recommended to Nurdan’s parents that he attend Kindergarten #174 for the visually impaired, and then the Republican Special School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Nurdan enrolled in the recommended kindergarten.
During the winter holidays, Nurdan began asking his mother why he didn’t attend a normal school. Nurdan’s parents investigated whether Nurdan could leave the special school. Most of the doctors tried to persuade Nurdan’s mother to keep Nurdan in the special school. They argued that given Nurdan’s impaired vision he needed a protective environment. Nurdan himself was adamant that he wanted to have friends among non-visually impaired children and study in a state school. Nurdan worried that staying in a special school would mean he would “start looking different from his relatives.”
Nurdan’s mother Gulbara began attending parents groups on the issue. She received handbooks and consultations from a community mobilizer trained by the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia. “I need to talk to parents whose children have gone to state schools to learn more about how I can help my son and other parents who have got children with disabilities” said Gulbara. “I will say, from my own experience, that it is difficult for a disabled child to attend a state school but the child grows confident and believes in his or her own future,” she concluded.
With active support from Gulbara and the community mobilizer, Nurdan transferred to the first grade in School #88. Nurdan has friends among his classmates now and his teacher is satisfied with his progress and behavior. Still, the transition was not perfect. Nurdan’s teacher does not have training in inclusive education and took time to adapt. Thanks to the training and advice Nurdan’s mother Gulbara had received, she was able to recognize any issues and resolve them Nurdan’s teacher. For example, Nurdan had been placed in the second row due to his height, whereas he needed to sit at the front to be able to see better; his teacher often used red chalk, which Nurdan cannot see on the board. With Gulbara’s guidance, Nurdan’s teacher has been able to accommodate these small factors into the everyday routine of the classroom.
Nurdan is happy to be going to state school; he excels, particularly in mathematics. “I write slowly, but I can solve math problems quickly in my mind, so, while other students are writing the problem up, I tell the teacher the answer, and she praises me” explained Nurdan. “I also love to come up to the blackboard and retell what we were asked to learn by heart. The other students cannot tell like I do. And, I go home together with my friend, Rasul, and nobody thinks that I’m worse than others,” says Nurdan.
“I thank my Mom for transferring me to the state school. My brother and neighboring children study here, too. It was good in the school for blind children—I was fed there and had a good and caring teacher. But every time I was walking home from the special school, I was thinking that I was becoming different from the neighboring kids; and my Mom was always taking special care of me. Now I’m independent. None of the children in the street say that I’m different than others and attend a special school. I dream about making my Mom and Dad proud of me when I grow up” concluded Nurdan.
The Open Society Education Support Program provides funding for the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asian (EFCA) to improve education and social protection for children with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan. By the end of the initial phase over 250 children with disabilities will receive formal education in mainstream schools or other settings as a result of EFCA’s work on inclusion. Kyrgyzstan’s recent signature of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and stated commitment to greater inclusion in education is cause for optimism. Nonetheless, a large-scale attitude change to education and disability, as well as significant investment over many years, are still necessary.
Many challenges remain. The legacy of a teaching system that does not focus on the individual abilities and educational needs of each child, poor overall skills and remuneration of teachers, general social exclusion of people with disabilities, and a medical view of disability which holds that medical knowledge is required to teach a child who has a disability, all still combine to deprive children with disabilities of proper education and social protection.