Twelve-year-old Dato’s dream is to become a traditional Georgian dancer. “Acharuli is my favorite [dance],” he said, as he lifted his arms and chin, and looked out at an imaginary audience. “It is difficult, but I practice every day.”
Dato may need to be more persistent than most youths as he pursues his aspirations; that is because Dato has Down’s syndrome. But the future is much brighter these days for him than just a few years ago. Prior to 2005, he likely would have been a shut-in, unable to sample the wonders of the world, or even attend a Georgian public school. But now he has a much better shot at realizing his dreams.
A law providing for inclusive education was passed in 2005, with a seven-year phase-in period. Starting in 2012, it became compulsory for all public schools to accept children with special needs. Today, 3,445 students with special education needs – ranging from hearing impairment to autism and cerebral palsy – attend Georgian public schools.
Identifying children who qualify for inclusive education programs has presented a major challenge for education officials. Stigma continues to surround people with disabilities in Georgia, and many families with a special-needs child tend to keep him or her at home, with little or no exposure to the outside community. The Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs’ Social Services Agency has a list of about 10,000 children who could qualify as special-needs students, many more than those attending Georgia’s elementary and high schools.
“We want to find them [special-needs students] and bring them to school,” said Eka Dgebuadze, head of the Inclusive Education Department at the Ministry of Education. The effort, she added, requires close coordination between the ministries of education, labor and health, and widespread public awareness campaigns.
In general, the Georgian government’s approach toward inclusive schooling has been “highly reactive,” according to an October 22 report issued by a Washington, DC-based Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, one of the few international non-governmental organizations working with disabled people.
Parents themselves are expected to take the initiative to learn that their children can attend public schools and receive support. But many do not.
“Parents feel alone and isolated,” explained Viktoria Midelauri, a neuropsycologist who worked for the Education Ministry and now serves as a disability-inclusion officer for World Vision, which runs clubs for parents of the disabled in four Georgian regions. “They need support, both financial and emotional, and too often they do not know whether that support exists, or how to get it.”
In rural areas, such initiatives can play a key role in removing traditional barriers against the disabled, experts say. In the western town of Zestaponi, a group of teachers in 2004 created a space where disabled children could meet and interact. The non-profit daycare center Orioni today hosts 40 children between the ages of six and 18, and employs 18 staff trained by the education and health ministries. The latter also supports the center financially.
“In 10 years, Orioni has bridged the gap,” commented Jeremy Gaskill, executive director of the McLain Association for Children, a local NGO that provides learning and training programs for disabled Georgians and their families, and runs the country’s only hotline for those seeking advice on inclusive education and disabilities. “Teachers set an example by bringing their own children here to play together with disabled ones.”
“Without them, most [special-needs] kids now in school would have been left in a room in their house,” Gaskill added.
Mixing special-needs students into regular classrooms has been an often arduous process. For example, when Tbilisi’s School #24 started to teach special-needs students in 2006, it faced ardent opposition from parents who did not want their children in a class with the mentally disabled, said English teacher Elene Khuskivadze, the school’s former inclusive education coordinator. Only after frequent meetings with the parents were their objections overcome, she said.
Pupils with special educational needs are present in just over 40 percent of Georgia’s 2,085 public schools. Depending on their learning challenges, students either sit with their peers in a classroom (where they may receive extra attention from a special-needs teacher) or are taught in a separate room, with a special-needs teacher.
Each school receives a monthly allowance of 350 laris ($200) to pay the salary of one special-needs teacher for every six eligible children.
Multi-disciplinary teams of psychologists, occupational therapists, and special-needs teachers – one team for each of Georgia’s eight undisputed regions – evaluate such students’ educational needs and help teachers prepare accordingly.
Since 2013, the Education Ministry’s National Center for Teachers’ Professional Development also has provided training for 4,700 education professionals and psychologists, and has assisted parents by offering counseling on how to manage their children’s learning needs.
Special-needs teacher Lia Tabatadze, the mother of a four-year-old with Down’s syndrome, feels the need for constant coaching. The 2005 law on inclusive education “partly changed people’s attitude,” she said, “but what is needed now is public awareness, through training, TV shows, and events” that involve the general public, as well as government, teachers and parents.
Inclusive education has its critics among the disabled. “It should not be carried out at any cost,” noted Esma Gumberidze, a 20-year-old Tbilisi State University law student who has been blind since birth. A need exists to recognize that disabled children are individuals, with different needs, she stressed.
“We must be very careful at how programs are implemented and how professionals are trained,” she said.
A teacher at Tbilisi’s state-run school for the blind, for instance, used to commend Gumberidze for trying "hard to get an education, even though you’ll end up begging at a street corner.”
Instead, she ended up going to study in the United States.
“The key is having a range of choices,” said World Vision’s Midelauri. “But if services are restricted and limited, families are left with no alternatives.”
-- This story originally named Tbilisi School #24 as School #124. The number has been corrected.
Monica Ellena is a Tbilisi-based freelance journalist, who has worked previously as an elementary school teacher in Italy and a university instructor in Georgia.