Albanian School Doors Stay Closed to Disabled Children
Yesterday the first article of this series was published; a report by journalist Elisa Gjerani that focuses on discrimination in access to the educational system often faced by children with disabilities:
Albanian School Doors Stay Closed to Disabled Children
Albanian law may guarantee children with disabilities the right to an education but in practice, parents face an uphill battle getting access.
Like any other child of his age, eight-year-old Ergi is a carefree kid, often giving a hard time to his mother, Bruna, as they stroll round the block near their apartment in Tirana, or walk in the park near Tirana’s artificial lake.
However, unlike other children his age, Ergi suffers from autism and does not go to school. “He is not living out his childhood because instead of going to school to integrate, he stays at home with us,” Bruna says.
“I talk to him and we play games together, but it’s not enough,” she adds.
Although the local regional school board gave Ergi a green light to enroll, the school would not register him, arguing that it lacked the capacity to deal with children with disabilities.
Right groups say Ergi’s case is not unusual. Although Albania in 2012 approved a law on inclusive education, guaranteeing the right of disabled children to attend school, they often encounter difficulties when it comes to registering.
Activists say that is not only schools that deny children with disabilities the right to an education. Fearing the stigma associated with disabilities, parents often do little to enroll them.
A study on inclusive education published by the charity Save the Children in November 2012 says Albania has 17,786 children with disabilities, 4,776 of whom are under six, while 8,845 are aged six to 15 and 4,165 are in the 15-to-18 age group.
It is estimated that 2,289 children with disabilities should be attending pre-school, another 5,477 should be part of the nine-year education system and 1,356 should be attending upper secondary school.
However, the number of children with disabilities enrolled in all three school levels school was only 1,058 in 2011.
Ergi’s struggle in life started when he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, following a trip to the doctor for a vaccine shot. “He hadn’t shown any signs of autism until then,” Bruna recalled. “I did not want to believe it,” she added.
After Ergi was diagnosed, his father abandoned his wife and child, adding to the family’s difficulties.
For almost a year, Bruna knocked on many doors in search of treatment, finally finding help from a non-profit centre in the Tirana suburb of Kombinat, “Let’s Stay Together.”
At the centre, Ergi received treatment for his disability on a daily basis, preparing him for entry into the school system.
Once Ergi was deemed ready for pre-school, Bruna went to register him. However, even after he received the approval of the local school board, the school would not take him.
The head teacher told her that they already had one autistic child and the teachers could not handle another.
“We can’t solve your problem here, take your kid somewhere else,” Bruna recalled the head telling her.
She turned again to “Let’s Stay Together”; however, despite mediation by the centre, the school still refused to register Ergi.
Janela Faniko, a psychologist at “Let’s Stay Together”, says they have encountered several cases of children like Ergi, who were able to attend school but were denied enrollment.
“Although the law guarantees these children’s right to an education, the doors of local schools remain shut for them,” Faniko said.
The same Save the Children study referred to earlier says 60 per cent of children with disabilities in Albania lives in rural areas.
Overcoming the widespread stigma against disabilities and securing a right to an education is even more difficult in the countryside.
Flori, a paraplegic boy, attends third grade at Bajram Gashi Primary School in Fllak, a village near the port city of Durres.
He should be in fifth grade by now, but for two years the school head refused to enroll him, arguing that the school lacked a ramp for a wheelchair.
Questioned by BIRN, the former head of the school, Gazmend Bulica, denied any intention to discriminate against Flori on the grounds of paraplegia.
“I wanted to save the parents the exhaustion of sending him back and forth because the school did not have the infrastructure,” he said.
Flori’s parents contest the former head’s claim, arguing that they were ready to do anything to offer him an education.
They even hired a private tutor to home school him for the two years that he was denied enrollment, and say he is now he is an excellent student.
“It was a huge punishment for my son to be left out of school,” Flori’s mother, Fabiola, said.
“If Albanian society continues to live with the prejudice that no children with disabilities should be in class, it punishes these children,” she added.
Florian Kulla, an education expert with Save the Children, says cases like Ergi’s and Flori’s violate the 2012 law on inclusive education.
The law not only guarantees the right of children with disabilities to an education but provides for special needs teachers for classes containing children with disabilities.
However, although the law has been in force for more than two years, many schools lack special education teachers, making enrollment for children with disabilities an uphill battle.
“In Albania… when a law is approved, its financial costs are not considered,” Kulla observed.
Enetela Luadhi, from MEDPAK, an advocacy group for children with disabilities, agrees that the lack of trained teachers to educate these children is a problem.
However, Luadhi said many parents’ own prejudice, as well as their fear of encountering prejudice, is also to blame.
“Some parents have a hard time accepting the disability of their own children,” Luadhi said.
“Fearing prejudice from society, these parents come to the conclusion that school won’t do their children any good, because they will never amount to much in life,” she concluded.