By Nada Heyari/ European Project Co-ordinator at CHANGE.
Two weeks ago Shaun and I went to Moldova to work together with Lumos on their de-institutionalisation activities in Moldova.
We worked on loads of different things including: workshops on self advocacy skills for child participation groups from inclusive education schools, we had discussions with support teachers on how to make information accessible, we ran a training session for staff of small group homes who wanted to know how best to support and empower the young people in the homes to live independently when they leave the home. We also gave a presentation on public speaking skills for a child participation group in one of the schools, as part of preparing two self advocates from that group who will participate in a big conference on De-institutionalisation in London.
Before I came to work for CHANGE I worked in Jordan, my home country, Syria and Lebanon, on empowering different groups of people to advocate for their human rights. I often find myself advocating for human rights even when I am outside of work – some people might say I am a trouble maker, but the way I see it is that I just cannot stay quiet when I see something happening that goes against any human right. I must speak up!
In Moldova, this is what we were trying to achieve: we were trying to empower the children to speak up for their rights- whether they are disabled or non disabled. I felt the children seemed very shy and reserved, and they weren’t sure how to react to seeing an adult with a learning disability training them or giving them a presentation.
When Shaun started talking it was amazing to watch the faces of the children! Their expressions went from unsure, to a mixture of full concentration and then admiration as Shaun shared his story. Shaun explained to the children how he had no confidence growing up, how he was bullied, and then how with the right support he became more confident. He shared with them how he feels about being a role model to lots of children and adults with learning disabilities. It was clear that the children were really inspired by Shaun!
One small boy, the most outspoken in the group said he found it amazing that Shaun had travelled to so many different countries.
The inspiration went both ways, as Shaun and I were both inspired by the children with their ideas on self-advocacy and what it meant to them. They spoke about making things better for themselves, their families and their communities. Shaun said to them that they already showed signs of becoming great self-advocates and that he felt they were very passionate, confident, and can do anything!
Shaun said to me after the workshops: “It was amazing to see all these children who barely know each other work together so well during the training and making plans to advocate for creating a park that is inclusive and accessible to everyone in their community!”.
On the last day of our visit we had a discussion with two young self-advocates who were preparing to participate in a big conference in London on De-institutionalisation. Shaun was supporting them by giving them his advice on how to speak in public.
While Shaun was doing that I was transfixed by two young children sitting at the other end of the table we were at. The girl was disabled, the boy wasn’t. For over an hour they made puzzles together. Whenever they finished one the boy asked the girl whether she would like another one and when she shook her head in agreement he would quickly get up and bring another one (the girl was physically disabled) got another one. Once he had made sure she was ok with his choice they started to play again. What I really noticed and what touched me so deeply was that they were being completely unselfconsciously natural and respectful with each other. This is one of the most wonderful impacts of inclusive education.
This is the way nature intended us to interact and be with each other.
This also made me think of what we at CHANGE always refer to as peer-to-peer support. In a way, the interaction between those two children was a real example of peer-to-peer support and how it can work. The boy without the disability was playing with the girl with the disability and supported her when and where she needs support. But mostly they were equals. Two children making a puzzle together.
What I was so impressed with was that the children we met in Moldova all go to inclusive education schools that adopt this structure of pairing up a child with a disability with another child without a disability that volunteers to support them. These volunteers learn how to support children with disabilities and become their friends.
When someone asked Shaun why he thought inclusive education was so good for Moldova he said: “Inclusive education is good because it breaks down barriers between children and that is a good thing for the future. When children with disabilities mix with children without disabilities they don’t see the disability anymore, they see a human being, and that is important for future generations.”
It is clear that Moldova is a very poor country but at the same time has many people in it who are very passionate to learn and to develop and to make their country better. No matter whom I spoke with, from school, principles, teachers, Lumos staff, everyone agreed that Moldova’s government officials, social workers and teachers all believe in the importance of de-institutionalisation and inclusive education and are putting all their energy and passion into making Inclusion happen.
When I heard this, I realised that I have also seen such passion for development before in Jordan and in Syria, two other countries which are also struggling to develop.
From my experience of working with grassroots organisations in both those countries, it is often when people have so little resources and are passionate about changing things for the better that they embrace any support in that direction and put all their energy into making the best of that support.
I have always felt that when working with people who are so eager to learn, I end up learning so much myself in a way that enriches my personal and professional experience in a very special way. I have found working in environments like these really exciting and rewarding! It may be very hard work but the results are always very visible and they are always a great way to remind me why I love doing what I do.
When I started to work for CHANGE I had never had the chance to work with people with learning disabilities or to work in a co-working model like the one that Shaun and I work by.
I have learned so much from this experience and it warmed my heart to see such young children in Moldova were instinctively co-working so wonderfully together!