Creating an effective learning environment for children with special needs requires extra care and attention. Despite government’s attempts to support inclusive education and the NGOs’ campaigns to raise awareness regarding this matter, teaching children with special needs remains challenging for parents and education professionals alike. Common misconceptions, as well as limited resources trigger difficulties during the educational process.
Maia Shishniashvili is a founder of Hand to Hand, an organization supporting social inclusion which offers personal assistance services for children with special needs, as well as family-type homes for disabled people over 18. Her son, 13-year-old Levancho, has Angelman syndrome, a condition causing developmental delays and behavioral impairments.
“In addition to personal assistance services and family-type homes, we recently started awareness campaigns and parental empowering programs,” – she said. “We teach parents how to support their disabled children in everyday life so that they can be independent once they’re adults.”
Regarding her son’s education, Shishniashvili told: “We really struggled when Levancho first entered school because back then, schools were not ready to teach kids like him. There are still some problems. Despite trainings, teachers are not prepared to properly handle children with special needs.”
She also offers a piece of advice to the parents of kids with special needs who are about to make choices regarding their children’s education: “Definitely take your kids to school, and let them interact with children of typical development. Despite special needs, our kids should experience regular childhood in order to prepare for independent adult life. If we don’t let them have such experience, they will grow up like “Mowglies” who won’t be able to fit in our society.”
Social worker Elene Kobidze pointed out the available institutions in Georgia where children with special needs can receive education: “They can either go to specialized schools or regular public schools adapted for inclusive education. In addition, there are special day centers where kids with disabilities can learn extra valuable skills.”
Kobidze also discussed the lack of educational options outside the city: “Institutions I mentioned are mostly in Tbilisi. Children with special needs who live in regions and rural areas don’t have that many choices. Since there are no day centers and specialized schools in regions, parents have to take their kids either to regular public schools or leave them at home.”
Regarding the challenges of inclusive education, she added: “We have to work hard in order to raise awareness. It’s a long, long process. Despite all the difficulties on the way, I still think that children with special needs should attend schools. If they don’t, the society will hold stigmas against them for longer. I don’t deny that these kids are different. On the contrary, inclusion means recognizing differences and accepting them as they are.”
UNICEF disability consultant Maguli Shaghashvili discussed the legal aspects of educating children with special needs: “According to Georgian law of general education, education has to be inclusive, meaning that it should be accessible to all kids regardless of their disabilities. However, there are still many inadequacies regarding inclusion in Georgian educational system.”
“The infrastructure of most public schools is still not adapted for children with special needs. For example, kids with visual and hearing disabilities often are not provided with extra materials necessary for their studies. Because of this reason, children with disabilities who live in regions have to leave their hometowns and move to Tbilisi in order to attend specialized schools,” – she added.
On choosing between regular public schools and specialized institutions, Shaghashvili said: “It is up to a parent to decide. However, the ministry of education can provide a multidisciplinary group which will assess the child’s condition and give recommendations regarding their education. This serves in the best interest of the child, and parents ought to consider it.”
The principal of 198 public school Teona Kacheishvili told about the mission of her school: “Our school is specialized for children with disabilities. We teach kids with special needs and help them develop functional skills. In addition, the school has recently acquired the status of a resource center. This means that we will train regional teachers as well as assist in adapting study materials for children with disabilities.”
Whether it’s better to attend regular or specialized schools, Kacheishvili thinks that inclusive education should be a priority, but specialized schools can help children to prepare for regular schools: “We try to adapt kids with special needs to school environment. Many of them later transfer to regular schools where they can receive inclusive education.”