By Linas Jegelevicius
KLAIPEDA - In Lithuania, a country where disability is often still seen as a curse, families face mounting challenges in raising a disabled child. How to protect a son or daughter from the sneers and bullying common in these situations? How to make the child’s life a little more cheerful? Most importantly, how to integrate these vulnerable offspring into an often hostile environment?
As many as 9,000 special-needs children, 2,000 of whom are wheelchair-ridden, dwell in Lithuania, according to the Lithuanian Education Ministry.
An exceptional boy
Nojus, the son of Gita Navickiene, a resident of the second-largest Lithuanian city of Kaunas, is a second-grader. He may appear to some too timid and even timorous, a trait characteristic to quite a few second-graders.
But Nojus is an exceptional boy. The eight-year old is autistic, which makes his life that much more complicated than it is for his peers.
Before enrolling the boy into a school - and five years ago signing him up with a kindergarten - Gita, his mother, admits to have had only headaches. Will the other children and teachers around her less-blessed son treat him fairly? Won’t they doom Nojus to bullying and finger-pointing?
“Amazingly, none of the fears have proved founded. Nojus has never experienced any adverse attention. In fact, he has always felt an overwhelming care and love from his little peers and teachers,” Navickiene told the national daily Lietuvos Rytas.
She remembers how once she received a phone call from one of Nojus’ classmate’s mother, who jubilantly told her that Nojus had read a book on his own.
“I felt like crying. I really believe that other children who are around children like my son are becoming more sensitive and better,” the mother noted. Had the child attended a specialized kindergarten and school, he would have not advanced so much, she said, convinced.
“It is very important to have all the kids like my Nojus around healthy peers for a simple reason: they are little copiers- they mimic, gesture and follow what their healthier buddies do,” the mother said.
Many prejudices out there
But other parents raising autistic children, nevertheless, admit that they are dealing with a good deal of prejudices and superstitions in educational establishments. Jurate Norgeliene, mother of an autistic daughter in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third-largest city, said she was astonished by the adverse acceptance she and her daughter, Irina, met during the first week in one of the seaport’s schools.
“I really was heartened how friendly the other classmates turned out to be for my autistic daughter. But the children’s parents’ reception was very chilly. Some of them, in fact, bristled against the idea of letting a bit disadvantaged child into the same class. Some of the mothers were arguing that my autistic child would be a drag on the class, slowing down the educational process,” the Kaunas resident recalled.
Not peers, but parents create problems
And indeed, Austeja Landsbergiene, head of a kindergarten mixing both disabled and children without disabilities, acknowledges that most of the parents are reluctant to see their children being taught in the same classroom.
“Quite surprisingly, only the adults have those kinds of concerns. For the children, this is not a problem. I perhaps cannot speak on the entire country, but, definitely, more and more disabled children are integrated into the regular educational facilities,” she noted. Additionally, “I really believe it is a great thing to be mingling all the children in a regular environment. In it, a special-needs child can improve a whole lot quicker.”
The educator, however, acknowledges that in cases of a physically disabled child, the development cannot be expected to be that of children without disabilities.
Sometimes the possibilities to integrate the special-needs child into the regular classroom are, however, constrained by the mainstream classes’ inaccessibility – a lack of ramps, larger elevators and larger bathrooms.
“This is perhaps one of the main reasons why special-needs children cannot attend the mainstream schools with the other children. If a pre-schooling group is on the third floor and there is no elevator, how, other than carrying the child, can it get to the classroom?” wondered Landsbergiene.
Society still needs to do a lot
A society where special-needs children’s integration is a priority and widespread, benefits to the public are clear, and results in a more open community, with less bullying. The Baltics, perhaps with the exception of Estonia, still need to do a lot in this regard.
Especially, says Landsbergiene, in rooting out the still wide-spread stereotype that disabled persons are not welcome - not by the next-door-neighbor, nor in a mainstream classroom.
“We really have to do a lot in breaking down prejudices, starting off with the children in kindergartens, teaching them that bullying a weaker and less advantaged kid is not the right thing,” the educator notes.
In each of the past two years the Lithuanian government has allocated some $25 million to adapt local schools for the army of nearly 10,000 special-needs children, 2,000 of whom are deemed to have mental disabilities.
But the money has not done the job for Ingrida Mazeikiene, mother of 11-year-old Lukas, who had had a severe spinal trauma and is left wheelchair-bound.
The single mother from Alytus, a town in southern Lithuania, had spent futilely nearly three months in search of a properly-equipped school for her child.
“The search has been very agonizing, as even the schools outfitted with the necessary facilities for the disabled were not accommodating. I still cannot believe some of the principals would frown upon hearing my request to enroll my son. Acknowledging the schools had the ramps and other facilities for the transportation of disabled children, they would hint that a special-needs child would be a drag for the mainstream class,” she recalled to The Baltic Times.
Legislation is fine, reality is harsh
Some of the schools upgraded for disabled children spent millions of euros of EU money. “At first sight, the special-needs children-oriented legislation seems all right, until you encounter the harsh reality. Most schools, even after EU-funded renovation, are not very hospitable to the children,” she said.
Failure to meet legal standards on integrating the disabled is not an issue of only this small Baltic country. Two years ago the EU education commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, said that despite member states’ commitments to reduce education’s boundaries, “children with special educational needs as well as disabled adults are still not receiving proper attention.”
Of 1,191 schools in Lithuania, 689 are fully or partly adapted to the needs of children with mobility problems, according to the Education Ministry. As a result, a good deal of such children are continuously assigned to segregated schools, and those in mainstream schools often obtain inadequate support, the commissioner noted.
Officials say they are “serious” about the issue
The Lithuanian Education Ministry insists it is serious about retrofitting schools. “According to the Lithuanian Education Law, access to educational facilities for children with special educational needs is guaranteed through appropriate adaptations to the school environment. In addition, other support is available to the children,” the ministry’s press office said.
However, a plaque on a school purporting that it has been adapted to disabled children’s needs in correspondence with EU standards may not be always accurate.
“Yes, formally our school is in conformity to the EU school requirements, though we lack ramps and an elevator. I cannot say definitely what would happen if the parents of a child with a need for special attention logged an application to attend our school,” Vaida Kaikariene, a primary-school principal in Palanga, a resort town in western Lithuania, told The Baltic Times.
A special-needs child poses a problem
If a wheelchair-bound child sought enrollment in the school, the parents need to specify the intention three months prior to the child’s start date so that the necessary arrangements could be made, according to the Palanga municipality’s regulations.
But in practice that may appear difficult, too. “I have some serious doubts whether the municipality would be able to prepare all the required technical documentation and complete the necessary work in three months. Especially if we speak of installing an elevator,” Bronius Martinkus, the deputy head of the Palanga municipal administration, admitted to The Baltic Times.
He conceded that such a child would “probably” be assigned to another school with separate facilities for special-needs children. But in that case, the pupil would experience segregation - enrolled in a special-needs class.
Danguole, a mother whose son attends one, said she is very happy with the care and attention he receives. “But ideally, I’d prefer he be taught with other children, in an ordinary class. However, I understand that for the sake of the educational process, segregation may be inevitable for now,” she concluded.