21 October 2014

Welcome to School: Ensuring education for children with disabilities

Davkhar launches a paper plane he built outside the 
family home © UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Andy Brown
Outside a ger tent, Davkhar’s brow is furrowed in concentration. His nimble fingers fold the piece of paper in his hands, making a paper plane. He finishes, looks up and throws the plane.  It flies for a few seconds before floating to the ground. After a few more test runs, he squats down to the ground and starts making adjustments to the plane. On the next attempt it flies further.

Davkhar is seven years old and has been disabled for most of his life. He lives in Nalaikh, 36 kilometers east of Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar, in a ger ‘tent’ with his parents and older sister, Tseenyam. Davkhar’s father, Bayarsaikhan, works as coal miner during the winter months when the mine is operating, and his mother, Oyun, works in a clothes factory.   

When he was just a toddler Davkhar was in a serious car accident.  The car rolled and he was thrown from the vehicle through a window.  His father Bayarsaikhan who was also involved remembers the aftermath vividly. “I was holding my boy, running to the hospital,” he says. “I was in shock and didn’t even realize I was also seriously injured until afterwards.” 

Following the accident Davkhar spent months in hospital. He had a serious spinal injury that required an operation to place a metal rod in his back to support his body. He also sustained a head injury that dented his skull, but luckily did not affected his brain function.

However his injuries still affect him. Davkhar occasionally has seizures, and one side of his body is weaker than the other. He tires easily and sometimes finds walking exhausting. The rod in his back needs to be replaced, and when he is older he will require further surgery to cover his dented skull.

Getting an education
Davkhar in class at Golomt Primary School 
© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Zetty Brake

Last year, Davkhar started school. Unlike some children with disabilities, who are sent to special schools, he joined a regular school, Golomt Primary School. “I enjoy going to school. I like to learn things and my favorite subject is maths,” he says. “My teacher’s name is Byambasuren. I like her because she teaches us a lot and is very kind.”

Bayarsaikhan, Davkhar’s father, says at first he was concerned when his son started school. “We worried that the other kids would hit him in the head and that he would get injured, but that hasn’t happened,” he explained. “When he first went to school, the other children were really curious about his head and asked to look at it but now that has stopped”.

In class, Davkhar seems happy and relaxed. He chats to the children sitting next to him and laughs with them at a joke. When the teacher asks them to take out their books, Davkhar quickly follows her instruction, keen to learn. 

Davkhar’s teacher Byambasuren says when he first came to school she showed the other children his head, and explained his disability. “I warned the other students to be careful around him and protect him if others try to bully him, and they have,” she says. “Davkhar has lots of friends and is a very bright and hardworking boy.”

Gantuya is a Disability Officer at the local Children and Family Center. She says not all children with disabilities in Nalaikh go to school. “All children with disabilities want to go to school,” she explains. “But they don’t because school buildings are not accessible for them, teachers don’t know how to teach them and some children live in remote and inaccessible areas.” 

“There is also discrimination from parents of students without disabilities. Some parents tell their children that if they play with children with disabilities they will catch their disability. And because the parents believe this, their children believe it too.”

A training for parents of children without disabilities, in order to address this stigma and discrimination, is having a big impact on the community, according to Gantuya.

“One of our best success stories is 11 year old Tuguldur,” she continues. “He is a very talented singer and is in a wheelchair. Before the training, other children excluded him because of their parents’ attitudes. But then some of his classmates’ parents came to the training and afterwards their attitudes changed completely.”

“One of the mothers invited Tuguldur to come over to their house whenever he liked to play after school. She told her own children that she had been wrong, and that they should play with him, help him at school, and include him in whatever they are doing.” 

A long way to go

Davkhar, with his mum Oyun, dad Bayarsaikhan, big sister Tseenyam
and disability officer Gantuya © UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Andy Brown

Both Davkhar and Tuguldur have been relatively lucky - not all children with disabilities in Mongolia have the same opportunity to go to school. 

“Less than half of children with disabilities in Mongolia go to school,” UNICEF Education Specialist Bolorchimeg Bor says. “This means that they are missing out on the life-long benefits that education can bring, such as a better job, social and economic security and opportunities to participate in society.”

“All children deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential, including children with disabilities. Providing inclusive education opportunities for all children in Mongolia, is key to ensuring all children achieve this,” she says.

UNICEF strongly advocates for quality inclusive education to be provided to each and every child, because it leads to better learning outcomes for all children, not only those with disabilities.

“Inclusive education, where children with and without disabilities learn together, is vital to the achievement of high quality education for all children,” Bolorchimeg Bor says. “It reduces inequalities, promotes tolerance, and helps build a more inclusive society.”   

Now Davkhar has started second grade at Golomt Primary School. “He wakes up hours early to make sure he is ready on time. He doesn’t want to be late,” says his mother Oyun. Davkhar wants to be a doctor. With the right support, there is every chance that he will achieve his dream.  

The author
Zetty Brake is the Communications and External Relations Officer at UNICEF Mongolia

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