“I am a part of this state, a state which does not make you feel like part of it.” This definition was given on Sept. 11 by young Kosovar author, Azem Deliu, in a post on his Facebook account. At the beginning of the year, the group feeling this most strongly was surely children with disabilities, who have seemingly been forgotten by the state. Their equal inclusion in the education system has been promised by past governments, but never treated as a priority.
“Inclusive education” — this is what has been continuously pledged by governments whenever policies for qualitative and equal education for all children have been mentioned. This right is guaranteed by the International Convention for Children’s Rights and by the law for pre-university education, as well as a series of other legal documents in Kosovo.
In his introductory note within the Strategic National Plan for Pre-University Education 2017-2021, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK)’s former Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Arsim Bajrami, stated: “We will work to increase the inclusion of children with special needs, as well as other members of marginalized social groups, such as impoverished people and members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.”
If we look at recent studies about the situation of children with special needs within the education sector, such as the study conducted by the UNICEF office in Kosovo, titled “Denied justice: The situation of children with special needs in Kosovo’s post-war education sector,” we see that from the approximately 10,000 children who have not been educated between 1999-2009, 70 percent of them were children with disabilities.
Recent statistics, such as those provided by the Handikos organization, show that in 2017, 40 children with disabilities were identified as not being included in primary and pre-primary education. While in 2016, 153 children with disabilities were identified as not having been registered for pre-primary education.
These figures though can not be treated as comprehensive. We are yet to have correct data but according to a number of different studies, it is estimated that there are approximately 150 thousand persons with disabilities in Kosovo. The exact number of children with disabilities is unknown, and there is even less information available regarding the exact number of children with disabilities that do not go to school.
In December, the UNICEF office in Kosovo is expected to release new evaluations about the cause of this lack of inclusion for disabled children in schools, through a broader study about the situation of disabled children in Kosovo. Parents and organizations that protect and advocate for the rights of these children have continuously sought the development of policies that enable their equal integration into the education sector, as they are not content with the current situation.
How have governments approached this issue thus far?
For the last decade, the education sector has been governed by PDK, who have most notably prioritized the improvement of infrastructure in schools. Their 2014 election program, “Misioni i Ri” (The New Mission), states that in the 2008-2013 period, 145 schools were built for lower and middle levels, and that many more were renovated.
However, organizations like Handikos have highlighted that in existing schools there is a lack of elementary infrastructure for guaranteeing inclusion, such as adequate bathrooms for disabled people, elevators, ramps and suitable transport.
In 2006, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) opened five “special schools” which have been transformed into daily resource centers for disabled children.
These schools are organized based on disability types. There are seven in total: the school for children with visual impairment in Peja, the school for children with hearing impairment in Prizren, and schools for children with learning difficulties in Prishtina, Prizren, Mitrovica and Shtime. There is also another special school in the south of Mitrovica which is utilized by Serb children but is not integrated within the MEST system, and thus there is no further information about it at our disposal.
There are plans to internally reorganize these schools so that more staff are allocated to the support service unit or center. There are also plans to hire new staff so as to increase the capacities of support service centers that support children with special education needs in regular schools.
However, at the time many saw this step as inadequate, since educating disabled children must go hand in hand with their integration in society, which implies education in regular schools with other children, not separate from them. The EU Report on Kosovo’s Progress in 2016 recommended that Kosovo improve its inclusion of disabled children in the education system by ensuring that disabled children go to public schools with their peers, and by raising the number of professional staff and personal assistants.
This is interconnected with other issues: the lack of resources and training for professional staff so as to continuously include disabled children, and the lack of psychologists and teachers.
In this direction, the Strategic Plan for Education in Kosovo foresees the creation of an integrated system for collecting, processing and utilizing data which would subsequently enable the monitoring of children with disabilities and children who leave school, as well as the improvement of the quality of teaching by offering a training program for inclusion. However, timelines or methods for achieving these goals are not provided.
A study conducted by the Coalition of NGOs for Child Protection (KOMF) — a coalition of 22 NGOs that work to protect and advocate for children’s rights — recommends an increase in the number of trained and qualified specialists in the field of education, so as to integrate disabled children more effectively in the education system. The same report also highlights physical barriers in education institutions and other public institutions.
“There are many public institutions, including schools, courts and the Center for Social Work, which do not have accessible elevators, ramps and assistive facilities (for example, in bathrooms) which would facilitate the needs of disabled persons,” it is said in the report.
In addition to this, the Index for the situation of disabled children provided by the KOMF & Child Pact study has shown that the state has no mechanism for issuing complaints for cases in which parents are dissatisfied with how their child is being treated in public institutions or other public places. In this form, monitoring disabled children is rendered impossible by the state itself.
So what next?
Within the newly formed government cabinet, MEST is managed by Fatmir Limaj’s party, the Initiative for Kosovo (NISMA) and its new minister is Shyqyri Bytyqi. In NISMA’s party program, disabled children are mentioned in one section, which states: “In recent years, policies for freedom, independence and democracy have failed in their attempts to reform education, health and increase employment levels through privatization, and have failed to socially integrate citizens in need and citizens with special needs.”
Whereas we still do not know exactly what NISMA has in store for the education sector, some of the most crucial needs for including disabled children and ensuring equal education for them are as follows: ensuring adequate transportation to education institutions; employing supportive staff for teachers and assistants for aiding the learning process; and arguably the most important need, providing medical teams in education institutions which offer daily support to these children so as to integrate them as best as possible in the education system. These are issues for which governments have failed to find concrete and practical solutions thus far.
However, if investments continue to be focused on concrete, rather than quality and inclusion, then Kosovo will continue to be experienced as a state of which you comprise, but are not a part of.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.