By Erin Nicholson, ChildFund Staff Writer
Last year in Belarus, a young man named Vlad passed the Baranovichi University entrance exams. A significant but fairly routine achievement, perhaps, except that Vlad was born with cerebral palsy. And in Belarus, his acceptance into college was nothing short of groundbreaking.
Although cognitively Vlad is very capable — he can quote Dumas with ease and loves classical literature by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky — the palsy makes his speech unclear, and he has trouble writing or using a keyboard. He almost missed out on going to college altogether; over and over he was prevented from taking entrance exams because students weren’t allowed any kind of assistance during the tests.
His break finally came after the vice rector of Baranovichi University attended a ChildFund-supported training on inclusive education, the USAID-funded project Community Services to Vulnerable Groups. She shared her new knowledge with colleagues, and Vlad was able to take the exam by answering questions verbally. He passed and even had the highest scores among all applicants that year.
In Belarus, more than 26,000 children are considered to have a disability and as many as 120,000 have special educational needs, according to UNICEF. These are alarmingly high numbers, especially for a country with just under 9.5 million people, and have nearly tripled since 1990. A complex mix of problems may be to blame, including the lingering effects of post-Soviet Union economic depression and the trauma of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion nearly 30 years ago.
There is not any direct evidence proving that long-term radiation exposure caused an increase in health problems in Belarus, but the economic devastation following the disaster resulted in widespread post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety throughout the population. Along with chronically high unemployment, the prevalence of smoking, alcoholism and overall poor nutrition contribute to an increase in disease and disabilities.
And in a country with limited economic resources, the infrastructure to support children who need assistance just isn’t there. So what happens to them? Institutionalization and exclusion from family and society is common, and children with disabilities, who are often seen as a burden or even an embarrassment, overwhelm orphanages. Rarely do they receive the physical, cognitive and emotional support they need — much less an education. The communities in Belarus where we work have seen some improvement, with the number of institutionalized children dropping to an average of 6 percent in 2009, down from the national average of 25 percent.
With the right support, life for these children can be better. As of 2012, 4,000 children and family members benefited from the USAID-funded inclusive education project. Vlad is gaining an education, as well as future opportunities and more independence. After college, he hopes to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
Recently, Belarus leaders have begun to prioritize inclusive education for children with disabilities, thanks in part to groundbreaking cases like Vlad’s and the work by ChildFund and other groups. More children are in a position to become leaders and have greater hope for the future, just like Vlad hopes to be.
Consider contributing to ChildFund’s Fund a Project for children living with disabilities in Belarus, giving them access to necessary classroom equipment. You can keep the momentum going for Vlad and other young people.
Today, as we mark International Day for Disaster Reduction, ChildFund is renewing its commitment to helping children, especially those with disabilities, prepare for and respond to natural disasters.
In communities already stressed by poverty, a typhoon, an earthquake or flooding from heavy rains can quickly break down family and community structures, leaving children at high risk of injury, disease and exploitation.
Protecting vulnerable populations including children and persons with disabilities is a primary component of ChildFund’s disaster risk reduction program, or DRR. The DRR process helps communities identify internal and external hazards with potential impact on children and families who live there. We drill down further to identify what makes those communities vulnerable to the hazards. Our trained staff then guide community members — adults and children — through the process of developing their capacity to overcome those vulnerabilities.
The effects of natural disasters are far-reaching. In a 47-country survey of more than 6,000 children, ages 10 to 12, last year, ChildFund found that nearly one in three had experienced catastrophes such as drought, flood or fires.
The U.N. International Day for Disaster Reduction is a global observance that seeks to raise awareness about the importance of helping people and communities become better equipped to withstand natural disasters. This year’s theme, “Living with Disability and Disasters,” highlights how people with disabilities – especially those living in extreme poverty – are among the most excluded in society and face acute vulnerability during disasters.
“Inclusive disaster risk management is about working together at all levels to minimize the vulnerability of those who will be most impacted by a disaster, and that includes people with disabilities,” says Steve Stirling, executive vice president of ChildFund. “I was a sponsored child with a disability myself, but I did have access to health care and education and was safe,” he says. “We want to ensure the same for all the children we serve.”
By ChildFund Belarus staff
Eighteen-year-old Vlad was born with cerebral palsy. His speech is unclear, and he cannot handle a pen or use a computer keyboard. And, yet, Vlad is a brilliant student.
Teachers educated Vlad at his Belarus home. Though the boy couldn’t write, he easily solved math problems in his head. By the age of 15, he had read many literature classics and could easily cite quotes by Dumas or analyze Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s works.
Vlad dreamed about becoming a lawyer who advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. But he faced a serious roadblock: Belarus’ system of entrance exams to its universities does not consider the special needs of a person with disabilities. The examination must be written, and parents are not allowed to be in a classroom during the exam. Personal assistants to help with writing or reading are typically unavailable.
In a quest to get their son admitted to college, Vlad’s parents petitioned several universities to allow him special assistance to take entrance exams, but they were turned down by most. In 2012, Vera, a vice rector at Baranovichi University, received training in inclusive education, a program conducted by ChildFund through the USAID-funded project Community Services to Vulnerable Groups.
Before the training program, Vera, like many other Belorussian educators, believed that children with communication problems also suffered from cognitive disability, often a misconception. But at the training, Vera was deeply impressed by the examples of academic achievements and talents that American children with disabilities have developed through proper support and teaching.
As a result, Vera decided to change the rigid entrance procedure at her university. She shared her new knowledge with her colleagues and obtained their full support. A special team was arranged to provide Vlad with adequate assistance during the testing process.
At the exams, Vlad gave his answers verbally, and a faculty member wrote it down. This minor adjustment allowed Vlad to pass the tests.
“The results inspired all of my colleagues,” Vera says. “The rector of our university and the members of the state educational board that inspected the exams applauded. Vlad showed brilliant results! He got the highest scores among all the applicants. We are very proud that the boy will become our student. Vlad is very persistent, and there is no doubt he will became a successful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.”
Because of widespread media coverage, Vlad’s story became known all over Belarus and was praised by the minister of education, who said that 2013 will bring reforms to the entrance examination process at all Belarussian universities.
At Vera’s university, she has continued advocacy efforts by designing a course on inclusive education for students in preschool education. The course was recently approved by the Ministry of Education for university curriculums all over the country.
Read yesterday’s post about a Belorussian girl reunited with her father.
Reporting by ChildFund Belarus
Nastya was born with a congenital disability that required her to use a wheelchair starting at an early age. She’s now seven.
Nastya’s parents wanted their daughter to be educated; however, they believed in-home education would probably be the best choice for her. They worried that the social problems she would face at school would be too much for her. As a result, she never attended kindergarten and did not have opportunities to develop communication skills.
This situation is typical for families of children with disabilities in Belarus, where ChildFund began working in 1993. Parents wish to protect their child from discrimination and aggression. Yet, an overprotective upbringing is one of the major barriers to a child’s inclusion in society and participation in community life.
In 2011, ChildFund’s USAID-funded program “Expanding Participation of People With Disabilities” began to reach children like Nastya. Working with another NGO partner, Special World, we started “The First Step to Independence Project.” Nastya and her parents were among 30 families to participate.
The project provides social adaptation tools for children in wheelchairs and resources for their families. Children enjoy the art studio, dance and the Healing of Magic class, while parents work on parenting skills, discuss challenges and share successes with their peers at the parents’ club. Since the project began, children and their parents have experienced physical and psychological improvements and have become more sociable and self-confident.
Successful adults who have disabilities and use wheelchairs act as trainers and leaders, providing inspiration for the children and their families.
When Nastya joined a wheelchair dance class in June 2011, everything was new to her. She was shy and afraid that everyone would laugh at her if she failed. Step by step, with encouraging support from volunteers, peers and her parents, she started to dance.
All of the hard work and achievement was spotlighted during a youth forum in Belarus dedicated to an inclusive society. The event brought together on stage children with disabilities, their typical peers and young volunteers. Nastya appeared with three other children in a special performance, “Dance With Us.”
“Thanks to ChildFund, my daughter opened up and overcame her shyness,” says Nastya’s mom. “I look at the progress Nastya made during the last six months. Now, my daughter is looking forward to going to school. I am absolutely sure that she will find many friends at school.”
Discover more about ChildFund’s work in Belarus.
Reporting by ChildFund Belarus
Over the course of January’s 31 days, we’re making a blog stop in each country where we serve children, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and donors. So whether you’re helping ChildFund build playgrounds in Afghanistan, provide drought aid in Kenya and Ethiopia or sponsoring a child in the United States, we hope you’ll make new discoveries about our work around the globe.
Kristina, 10, was born in Belarus with a congenital disability that required her to use a wheelchair since early childhood.
Because her wheelchair was not an active model, Kristina needed assistance everywhere she went. Her mom was usually the one pushing Kristina’s chair. But since her mom couldn’t be with her all day, Kristina’s participation in school activities was limited.
More than anything, Kristina wanted to take dance classes. Yet without a wheelchair that she could maneuver, that dream was out of reach. In fact, Belarus government safety regulations prohibited children under 14 from using active wheelchairs. The rule presented serious barriers for Kristina and 5,000 other teenagers using wheelchairs in Belarus. These young people could not fully participate in educational and cultural activities or sports. Being dependent on others to move them from place to place also had a negative impact on the children’s physical development.
In September 2010, ChildFund, which has worked in Belarus since 1993, helped organize a roundtable to address the inclusion of children with disabilities. The issues forum was one of several activities ChildFund was implementing through its USAID-funded Community Services to Vulnerable Groups project, with the aim of expanding participation of people with disabilities.
The unavailability of active wheelchairs for children quickly surfaced as a hot topic at the roundtable. Youth participants pointed out that in addition to the regulatory barrier, the only manufacturer of active wheelchairs in Belarus did not produce a model for children under age 14.
In the months following the roundtable, ChildFund continued to provide youth participants with advocacy training, helping them improve their leadership skills and knowledge of the issues that impact them. Armed with new tools and tactics, youth leaders, working with community members, began to advocate for changes in Belarus regulations that prohibited teenagers from using active wheelchairs. Ultimately, their advocacy work resulted in regulatory relaxation, clearing the way for the manufacturer to start production of active wheelchairs for children under 14.
In May 2011, Kristina got her first active wheelchair: “Now I am happy that I have independence,” she says. “I can meet with my friends and go to dancing classes without my mom. I am going to participate in the [International Paralympic Committee] Wheelchair Dance Sport competition next year. There are no more barriers to my sports career and my life!”
Discover more about ChildFund’s programs in Belarus.
“Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable in emergency situations and require focused protection measures,” notes Anne Edgerton, ChildFund’s disaster management team leader.
The Haiti earthquake resulted in high rates of orthopedic injuries. Untreated for days and weeks, broken and badly injured limbs can develop gangrenous infections. The total number of amputees due to the earthquake could stretch into tens of thousands, Dr. Ronald Waldman of USAID told Reuters news service.
One Haitian physician told Reuters that the earthquake has created a generation of amputees, many of them young, who will need care for years to come.
“Attention to these issues early on is crucial,” says Edgerton, “because children who have injuries and other disabilities are more likely to be overlooked in relief efforts.”
CBM and ChildFund are coordinating relief efforts with Haiti’s Secretariat for Inclusion of People with Disabilities and other local and international humanitarian aid groups.
We are also supporting the Centre d’Education Special, which provided services to 500 children with disabilities in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake hit. “Now, with renewed attention and resources after this disaster, children with disabilities and injuries — as well as other community children in need — will be located and included in rehabilitation support appropriate to their needs,” Edgerton says.
To support ChildFund’s partnership with CBM in Haiti, click here. Contributions made no later than Feb. 28, 2010, can be deducted from 2009 tax returns.
Given the chaos on the ground in Haiti, it is critical that organizations collaborate to meet the needs of vulnerable children.
Because ChildFund does not operate in Haiti, we are partnering with Christian Blind Mission (CBM), which has operated in Haiti for 30 years. This supports an established on-the-ground organization with staff and resources already in place to immediately begin addressing the needs of vulnerable children.
Funds provided to CBM through ChildFund will be earmarked specifically for children.
“ChildFund will use its vast experience on how best to meet the needs of children in crisis to ensure funds are used for child-focused efforts with great impact,” said Anne Lynam Goddard, president and CEO. “Having worked in emergencies, I know how critical it is to coordinate assistance to provide the greatest impact. We are not operating in Haiti but we are using our experience to partner with those on the ground to meet the needs of children.”
CBM is the world’s largest international nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for the blind and people with disabilities. Funds raised by ChildFund will be used by CBM specifically to meet the needs of the most vulnerable – children with disabilities. CBM estimates that the number of injured children demanding hospital services because of the Haiti earthquake has increased tenfold.
Three of CBM’s projects in Port-au-Prince are dedicated to children. One, Grace Children’s Hospital, sustained damage. Patients are sleeping in the streets.
CBM has sent emergency relief specialists to assess needs, meet with partner agencies and determine immediate and long-term responses.
“Thanks to our partnerships with organizations such as ChildFund, our efforts will make sure that disabled children, often the most vulnerable after a crisis, aren’t at the back of the line for assistance,” said Ron Nabors, CEO of CBM-US.
We will provide periodic updates on the recovery efforts and rebuilding from our partners on the ground in Haiti.
For more information and to donate, click here.