15 August 2016

Inclusive society starts in school

Shuree likes to read and dreams of becoming an actress
 ©UNICEF Mongolia/2016/Enkhzul Altangerel
      From the pile of letters, Munkhshur picks letter “Р” to complete the word “САР” which means “moon” in English. “I know how to spell many words. Do you want to see the others?” smiles Shuree, as her friends call her, eager to show what she has learned at school.

Though it may seem a small thing, learning to read and write for children like Shuree, is a big achievement. Shuree is now 15 years old, yet due to her disability she was not able to attend school until she was 11. Born with cerebral palsy, her condition gradually worsened, until she was no longer able to walk. She lives with her mother and brother in Nalaikh district located some 30 km away from Ulaanbaatar – the capital city of Mongolia. 

Despite her challenges, Shuree attended a special kindergarten for malnourished and paralyzed children in Ulaanbaatar when she was three and a regular kindergarten in Nalaikh district for about two years. This is not the case for many children with disabilities in Mongolia as currently these children make up only one per cent of pre-school enrollment rate of 84.6 nationwide; more than half of the children with disabilities cannot go to a general education school. 

Shuree remembered academic school year 2012-2013 as a special one for her and many out-of-school children in Nalaikh. In 2012, the district Non-formal Education (NFE) Center started implementing outreach work targeting out-of-school children, such as children from the Kazakh ethnic minority and poor families and children with disabilities, with support from UNICEF Mongolia’s Child Friendly School initiative.

“I love learning. Since I started school, my health has improved a lot, too. I have made a lot of friends” says Shuree. At the NFE Center, Shuree and other children receive not only basic education through the equivalency programme, but also important life skills, such as communication and self-expression. 

Her brother Batkhaan says that there have been a lot of positive changes since Shuree started school. “My sister used to look at books and describe what she sees, but now she can read. Even though it’s difficult for her, she can now read slowly. Since starting school, she’s become really bright and now dreams of becoming an actress in the future,” he says proudly. 

Shuree is very happy to say that she has almost started her career as an actress as she took part in the video developed by the Swedish National Committee for UNICEF about helping children with disabilities in Mongolia. She also starred in another social media spot promoting education for children with disabilities developed by UNICEF Mongolia this year. Last winter, Shuree went to Stockholm, Sweden to meet children and young people there, and help UNICEF’s fundraising activities speaking on behalf of all the children with disabilities in Mongolia.

Shuree’s family says a school has brought a lot of positive changes to her
 ©UNICEF Mongolia/2016/Enkhzul Altangerel
“My visit to Sweden was very interesting - thank you to UNICEF Sweden. I met many children and talked about children with disabilities in Mongolia. I also met a Paralympic athlete who works at the city administration. It was so nice to see that a person with disability can work at administrative level. I want to study well at school and become like him in the future.” Shuree says enthusiastically. Shuree believes that every child should go to school to become a productive member of the society. “If I hadn’t gone to school, I would have just stayed at home doing nothing. I want to become an actress, and to reach this dream I need to study. I wish that more children like me can go to school so that they can become good persons and fulfil their dreams”

Supporting inclusive education for children with disabilities

Every child has a right to education. However, children with disabilities face many barriers such as social exclusion and lack of supportive environment. UNICEF Mongolia is supporting the Government, NGOs and the schools to change this situation. In Mongolia, parents used to hide their children with disabilities at home because of stigma and prejudice. However, in recent years attitudes have started changing with more people accepting diversity and inclusion. Mrs Nansalmaa, Principal of the Nalaikh NFE Center, says that the number of students at the center has been increasing in the past few years. “We organize various trainings and information sessions for the parents jointly with the local Family and Child Development Center. As a result, more parents are now sending their children who have disabilities to schools. Currently we have 168 students at our Center, out of whom 38 are children with disabilities. Some children cannot come to school because they live far or have severe disabilities, so the teachers also visit their homes to teach and make sure they catch up” she explains.

“When Shuree first started school, she was very shy and didn’t speak much. She was very timid. But now, among children, she has become more talkative, open and expressive. Her communication has really improved a lot,” says Mrs Beisen, Shuree’s Mongolian language teacher.

The sports and recreational classroom at NFE Center provides
opportunities for children with disabilities to exercise
 ©UNICEF Mongolia/2016/ Enkhzul Altangerel
UNICEF Mongolia has been supporting the NFE Center providing funds for school supplies, books, snacks, conducting capacity-building trainings for teachers for improving coverage and quality of equivalency programme trainings for NFE students including home-visit teaching for children with disabilities and summer “ger” school in 2012-2016. UNICEF also provided support in setting up indoor WASH facilities and a sports and recreational classroom for children with disabilities at the Center.

However, more needs to be done to fulfill every child’s equal right to education in the country. “While Mongolia has near universal primary education enrollment, there are a few thousand children who are out-of-school. UNICEF is supporting the creation of an inclusive education system in Mongolia, where all children, including children with disabilities and other disadvantaged out-of-school children, receive meaningful learning opportunities, where everyone is included, differences are celebrated, learning is supported and that responds to individual needs.” UNICEF Mongolia’s Education Specialist Bolorchimeg says. “Individual success stories like Shuree’s prove that when children with disabilities start school as early as possible they have a much better chance of being included in their communities which in turn leads to their becoming productive members of society. Schooling really brings joy to these children and their families. That’s why it is crucial that parents seek opportunities for their children to go to school and schools get ready to enroll them” adds Mrs Bolorchimeg.

Children with disabilities can thrive in an inclusive classroom setting. It takes all relevant stakeholders – from Government to communities to families – to work together to build a more inclusive society so that more children like Shuree can have the same learning opportunities in life as other children.

Watch videos of Shuree:

Author: Enkhzul Altangerel, Digital Communications Consultant at UNICEF Mongolia

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