by Tetiana Machabeli
During my childhood, I never met an orphan or handicapped child in kindergarten or school. I never came across them in the streets or elsewhere either. I had only read about such people in books. We had a Gypsy family as neighbours.
We played with their children. They were amusing and perhaps a bit uncontrolled, but we never had any prejudices against them. I knew there were such places as orphanages or children’s homes, but they were out of town, not in the main streets.
A diagnosis M.S.
My brother contracted Multiple Sclerosis at the beginning of the 1990’s and became crippled. Through this I came into contact for the first time with a group of people who were “different.” I discovered that there are lots of them, but there was no place for them in our society and they tended to be hidden away. On one occasion I wanted to take my brother out in his wheelchair, but it was a huge challenge for him. I helped him to get to a lift, only to discover that the wheelchair wouldn’t fit in it. Our street was not suitable for the physically handicapped either. You were considered privileged if you had a wheelchair that was your own. My mother worked with the Red Cross and so was able to get one for my brother.
Some years later, I met some mothers who didn’t want to put their handicapped children in a special home or institution. During the Soviet era it was usual and normal to send a handicapped child away and put it in a special state-run facility – homes that were far-removed from normal life. These mothers were heroes to me! They pioneered the first day-care facilities for their children. Most of them now work as teachers and care-givers in those new centres.
They had to overcome great difficulties to achieve their goal. I remember well the day when I saw them for the first time with their children in public. The children were fearful and many were crying or aggressively resisting. When I visit them today, it’s completely different. You won’t find so much joy, smiling faces, love of life, friendliness and mutual support anywhere else.
My first contact with orphans
Meeting orphans was another encounter that changed my life. My friends and I were asked to look after some young people who had to leave the State Orphanage because they were now too old. That was in the 1990’s, a time which was very difficult in our country, especially to find a job. When we arrived in the orphanage to meet the children, we were surrounded by a large group of kids. All of them had the same haircut, an odd smell and they all wanted to hold on to us. Left to themselves, they ran around on the school-yard like a pack of dogs on the street.
An inhumane system
There were 18 young women aged from 18 to 28 who had to leave the home. The director didn’t want to put them out on the streets and so, secretly gave them food and a place to sleep, although that was illegal. According to the law, orphans had to be discharged when they turned 18, and go on to college, a university or a work-place. The problem was that all these girls were developmentally disturbed and were unable to work, let alone study. None of them had been prepared for an independent, self-responsible life. The path into criminality or prostitution lay ready before them. I was shocked at the brutality and inhumanity of the system. We were able to help most of them. To do so, we had to train them in the simplest, most basic things; beginning with personal hygiene and good manners, to a good work-ethic and managing money. Many of the girls had been stuck in the home since they were born. In those days there were only two options, adoption or a state orphanage.
The first steps
We organised some shared accommodation and found volunteers who would visit the orphanages in order to teach social skills and good manners. We noticed that in these homes there was hardly any incentive for the children to get involved in worthwhile activities. One lady introduced us to the Montessori Method, an approach that keeps the complete development of the children in view.
Reform of Social Welfare in the Ukraine
Since 2004 genuine reforms in social areas have been made in the Ukraine. The government has given a green light to caring for and bringing up orphans in a family environment. Many Ukrainians have opened their families and taken orphans in. They experienced the same challenge as we saw years ago.
WE ARE ABLE TO
In 2011 we began the first Montessori kindergarten in our Nehemiah Training Center, where parents were also able to learn the Montessori methods. Children with handicaps were together with other children, growing together. We use the same methods with children from the city of Uzhgorod during our Summer Camps – with amazing results!
In 2016 the Ukraine began to reform their education system, especially for primary schools. Lessons were to be more oriented to the needs of the children and less oriented to the teachers. Since then a new curriculum has been introduced for the 1st Class and we have discovered that many elements of the Montessori method have been included. Unfortunately most of the teachers are not yet ready for the change. All they know are the traditional methods of the Soviet era, with which many of the less privileged or less able students fall by the wayside. The reforms require inclusive school classes, but that is another area where our school system is not ready for change. The schools do not have the infrastructure to cope yet. Because of this teachers teach handicapped children in their homes instead of integrating them in the normal schools. Quite often teachers approach us, asking for materials and help to learn new methods.
Inclusive Model Schools
We are hoping to start an inclusive model primary school soon, which uses the Montessori methods. The goal will be to help parents and teachers to educate the children in a non-damaging environment and to teach them, so that each one can find his or her place in the local community. Despite the difficulties and challenges facing our country at the moment, we are convinced that this nation has a bright future if we can touch the lives and hearts of our children and provide the necessary environment to develop them fully.
(Tetiana is the leader of the NGO Neemia in Uzhgorod, who is committed to inclusive education for disadvantaged children and socially marginalised groups.)