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23 Jan, 2010 04:45

Russian schools edge their way towards tolerance

Russia is pushing for the integrated education of special needs children following the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities.

Moscow signed the convention two years ago, moving away from the Soviet system of total segregation for people with disabilities from normal society.

Zhenya Shivkina is good in history and math, and she studies hard, though it is not her talents but rather her disability that defines her education.

Born with no arms, Zhenya was sent to a special school where the children there live with some form of disability. While this is not what Zhenya’s parents would want, they felt the only other option was much worse.

“It’s much more interesting here than being schooled at home. Here I can be together with other kids, while at home there is only a TV,” she says.

This separation between schools – that some describe as segregation – may soon come to an end. The Moscow City parliament is currently considering a bill that will make it possible for children like Zhenya to attend any public school of their choice.

“This is very important not only for the kids living with disabilities, but even more so also for those who are perfectly healthy. In Russia we talk a lot about the need to raise tolerance, but so far it is all very abstract. Seeing these kids around, helping them when needed – that will raise awareness better than any lesson,” thinks Viktor Kruglyakov, member of Moscow City parliament.

Yet, those few schools that have tested inclusive education show that it is worth trying. In one such school, children living with disabilities learn alongside their peers as a part of the experiment. For instance, even though 10-year-old Anya was born with Down’s syndrome is far behind the other students intellectually, it doesn’t stop them from appreciating her company.

“Anya is very kind, clever and pretty. We all are friends with her,” her classmate says.

As noble as integration undertaking is, it presents a major challenge for the school administrators. Even though it promotes the idea of inclusive education, the new bill doesn’t include any additional financing.

As such, in Moscow, only one in five schools can accommodate children with special needs, while across the country the figure is even more depressing.