Inclusive education is reuniting families in Moldova
For children with (and without) disabilities school is about far more than getting good grades. It helps them develop the social and practical skills essential to live full and independent lives. Yet up to ninety percent of children with disabilities in developing countries are excluded from any formal education. Prospects for girls are particularly bleak; illiteracy levels amongst girls with disabilities in the Global South are estimated to be as high as 98%. When children are excluded from their local schools parents often face an agonising decision: keep their child at home, with no prospect of an education, or send them to a residential ‘special’ school or institution, often far away. If families are poor and lack support they can feel there’s no other option.
Lumos is an international NGO founded by J.K Rowling with an ambitious, yet achievable, goal of ending the practice of placing children in institutions by 2050. There are an estimated 8 million children living in orphanages and institutions around the world, despite 80% having at least one living parent. Predictably, children with disabilities are considerably more likely to be institutionalised. The chronic lack of local inclusive education is a key driver of institutionalisation, with life-long consequences. Decades of research associates impaired physical, cognitive and emotional development with growing up in institutions. Separating children from families can also diminish relationships with parents, siblings and communities, greatly reducing chances of becoming happy, independent and productive adults. Girls with disabilities’ already heightened risk of sexual violence is intensified in institutional settings where they often have multiple carers and limited opportunities to report abuse.
Deinstitutionalisation is the process of transforming the way children are cared for. It involves reunifying children with their families and developing alternative family and community-based services for children who aren’t able to return home. For deinstitutionalisation to be sustainable, services in the community must be established to support reunified families and prevent new children being unnecessarily placed in care.
Inclusive education is key to ensuring children with disabilities are able to return to their families. In 2007 Lumos began working in Moldova to support the Government’s deinstitutionalisation process. At that point inclusive schools didn’t exist and almost half of children in institutions had a disability. Developing inclusive education was crucial for deinstitutionalisation to succeed. Training and supporting teachers was vital, particularly to challenge entrenched beliefs about people with disabilities should be hidden away. These attitudes were also prevalent amongst parents and carers who had long been told their children could not be educated. Sustained work was needed to help raise expectations for children with disabilities.
For inclusion to work, Lumos, the Ministry of Education and other partners developed a multidisciplinary approach. Resource centres were created within mainstream schools to support teachers develop differentiated curriculums and resources for children with special educational needs. These centres create a safe space for children to receive extra support within the mainstream environment. They are hubs of activity, nurturing active groups of children – with and without disabilities – who regularly meet to promote inclusion. This model was piloted in 12 schools and is now replicated across Moldova. Inclusive education is now a compulsory module for teacher training and inclusive kindergartens are being established to identify and provide early support for children with developmental delays within the community.
This September saw a new and exciting milestone for inclusive education in Moldova. An inclusive education unit was opened within a mainstream school, providing education to 22 children with profound disabilities who had never been to school before. These developments quash outdated views that some children are simply ‘uneducable’.
Moldova has made remarkable progress, reducing the number of children in institutions by over 80% since 2007, whilst simultaneously increasing the number of children with disabilities in mainstream education by 729%. These achievements came despite Moldova being the poorest country in Europe and experiencing significant political instability.
Inclusive education has been a catalyst for girls and boys with disabilities to return to and flourish in their families in Moldova. A generation of children, once shut away, are now learning, thriving and contributing to their communities, benefiting everyone. This not only develops confident and capable young women and young men, it creates a more tolerant and inclusive society for all.
 United Nations (2007) From Exclusion to Equality: Realizing the rights of persons with disabilities – Handbook for Parliamentarians on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, United Nations, Geneva www.un.org/disabilities/documents/toolaction/ipuhb.pdf [Accessed 6 December 2016].  1 The number of residential institutions and the number of children living in them is unknown. Estimates range from ‘more than 2 million’ (UNICEF, Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection Number 8, 2009) to 8 million (Cited in: Pinheiro, P., World Report on Violence against Children, UNICEF, New York, 2006).  Csáky, C., Keeping children out of harmful institutions: why we should be investing in family-based care, Save the Children, 2009, p 3.  Larsson, N. (2016). Out of sight: the orphanages where disabled children are abandoned. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/sep/26/orphanage-locked-up-disabled-children-lumos-dri-human-rights [Accessed 12 December 2016].  Lumos (12 June 2015). Drivers of institutionalisation. https://wearelumos.org/stories/drivers-institutionalisation-0 [Accessed 12 December 2016].  Berens, A. E. & Nelson, C. A. (2015). The science of early adversity: is there a role for large institutions in the care of vulnerable children? The Lancet  French, P., Dardel, J. Price-Kelly, S. (2010). Rights denied: Towards a national policy agenda about abuse, neglect and exploitation of persons with cognitive impairment. People with Disability Australia.  Ministry of Education: Republic of Moldova (2011). Preamble (introductive/analytical part) to the national Programe on development of Inclusive education in the Republic of Moldova for 2011-2020. Governmental Decision No.523/2011 http://lex.justice.md/index.php?action=view&view=doc&lang=1&id=339343