Inclusion and Education: A System That Works For All

Photo credit: UNDP Azerbaijan/ Mammad Aliyev



Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a boy was born very different from any other child. When his parents saw him for the first time, they were shocked because he did not have any arms or legs. With this flaw, his life could have been full of sorrow, loneliness, and despair, but thanks to his strong spirit, support from his parents, and the right environment, he grew into a successful and happy man. This man is Nick Vujicic; he is a world-renowned speaker, New York Times best-selling author, coach, and entrepreneur, happily married, and father of four children.

Malakhat Kazibekova often tells Nick Vujicic’s story to parents of children with disabilities to help them regain hope for the future and change their perspective on their parenting patterns: “Quite often, parents are quite authoritarian; they do a lot for their children with special needs, but they try to control everything in their life, which happens because of their inner fears for their children. As a result, sometimes parents are not able to provide necessary support to induce children’s enthusiasm and inspiration stimulating their development. Therefore, psychological training and individual consultations for parents are indispensable; if parents have trust and hope, the child will also. The parents’ emotional state and their perception of life play a key role in developing children.”

Ms. Kazibekova is a psychologist who is part of the team working on the project “Promotion of inclusive education through Traditional Arts” (PIETA). This project is funded by the European Union, co-funded and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in cooperation with the Centre for Traditional Arts (ICTA) under the Icherisheher Administration (Old City). This initiative falls under the umbrella of the EU/Azerbaijan Partnership Priorities (2018-2020), to support the implementation of the national Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2018), and the State Program on Inclusive Education 2018-2024 – whose ultimate goal is to build an inclusive education system for all.

With the support of this project, several-month craft courses were organized for 46 children and young people with different disabilities, as well as 66 students without special needs. They studied several modules such as pottery and decorative solutions, woodcrafts, simple souvenirs of beads, polymer clay, batik, and stained glass. In cooperation with the State Agency on Vocational Education, the sustainability of this project has been ensured and activities will resume at the Inclusive Centre in Buzovna area, as a part of the Baku State Vocational Education Centre on Art and Crafts. 

Photo credit: UNDP Azerbaijan/ Shirin Rzayeva

According to UNESCO, inclusive education allows students of all backgrounds to learn and grow side by side, to the benefit of all. This education system gives real learning opportunities for groups who have traditionally been excluded, based on socially ascribed or perceived differences, such as sex, ethnic/social origin, language, religion, nationality, economic condition, ability. Nevertheless, disability is the single most serious barrier to education globally, stemming from discrimination, stigma, and decision-makers’ failure to incorporate accessibility in school services.

The first-ever World report on disability, produced by WHO and the World Bank, which was published in 2011, established that about one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. One-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities. Which means that Azerbaijan has an underrepresented rate of population with disabilities, having registered only 630,000 citizens with disabilities or 6.5% of the population, including 74,000 children.

UNICEF estimated that by 2018, a mere 20% of school-aged children with disabilities in Azerbaijan, including those that were not registered, were receiving their education, either in home-based learning programmes, special or residential schools.It means none of them had access to inclusive education as required by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Gwendolyn Burchell, founder of United Aid for Azerbaijan (UAFA), explains, “Children with disabilities will have an equal opportunity to succeed when provided with individualized services and support to meet their needs within the context they play, learn, and socialize with other children in their communities. Creating special centers segregated them.”

As referred to by the Global Education Monitoring in the “2021 Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia Report – Inclusion and Education: All Means All”, this lack in the system may be a consequence of various factors such as poor understanding of disability, inefficient data collection systems, and the world-wide negative attitude stigma toward disability, and of course the historically medical-oriented model which sees the people with disabilities as objects of social welfare and not as subjects in their own right, let alone entitled to the full enjoyment of the rights to work, education, and health.

Photo credit: UNDP Azerbaijan/ Mammad Aliyev

Currently, with a human rights approach, “Inclusive education allows us to notice that people around are different and teaches us to see beauty in everyone. Children without disabilities benefit from inclusive education as much as children with disabilities do. They learn to be tolerant, to empathize, and help other people, which is very important. When the teaching process is correctly organized, inclusive education brings excellent results for all the process participants,” advises Ms. Kazibekova. “Though it doesn’t mean that a child with disabilities will blend in the class immediately. The adaptation period takes at least three months, and teachers, psychologists, social workers, and parents should help make this process painless. Otherwise, it might be challenging to get the result.”

Nevertheless, in the words of Ms. Kazibekova, “It is quite difficult to organize this process in the traditional education system where teachers strive for figures and are expected to implement work plans in time.” After 23 years of promoting inclusion, Ms. Burchell testifies how, after the independence, there was a misguided attempt to introduce integral education based on western models. “It was a real struggle to comprehend that integral education wasn’t just to place children with disabilities in the same classroom with peers without disabilities; the right approach refers to how children are taught. It is more about the teacher training rather than the child.”

Zarina Aliyeva, UNDP specialist and PIETA project coordinator, explains in-depth this premise of inclusive education, “The educational didactics should be as different as we all are. With individual goals and objectives for every student, which are not beyond their abilities, the educational process can be quite harmonious. With inclusive education, we don’t focus on what some people cannot do, but on what they can do, and in this case, everyone can contribute and be involved.”

Photo credit: UNDP Azerbaijan/ Reza Deghati

This project was designed to fill a gap in the inclusive education initiatives. As Ms. Aliyeva recalls, “There are some inclusive pilot projects in our country, but they are more at the primary school level; for young people after special school, there is almost nothing.” This is the reason why inclusion at the preschool level is the place to start, before children and parents develop bias and stigma, as demonstrated by the results of project, “Social Rights Development: community-based strategies to include vulnerable and isolated children to preschool education” (2012 – 2014), implemented by UAFA and its local partner, Centre for Innovations in Education.

The EU also funded this project when UAFA still worked with foreign grants before the regulations changed in 2014. Among other activities, they piloted a model where children in inclusive preschools were fully prepared and more advanced than children from the state kindergarten system, to the point where state kindergarten teachers took their children out of the regular system to put them in the Self-Help Groups. Nevertheless, while the education system is being modernized from the beginning, it is necessary to provide inclusive spaces for young people.

The goal of PIETA is not just to teach the students some crafts, but to socialise them, develop their communication and independent life skills, help them to believe in themselves, improve self-esteem and make friends. “Many young people with disabilities in Azerbaijan live in isolation for years – they don’t work, don’t study, don’t attend any event, and it makes it very difficult for them to interact with other people and make contacts as we observed at the start of the project,” Ms. Aliyeva advises.

Therefore, a group of rehabilitation workers is involved to the project to provide students with disabilities and their parents with psychosocial counselling and other support services and help them adjust to the existing challenges. Students of the Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University were recruited as interns to provide individual support to students with disabilities when necessary, and enhance communication and interaction of students with disabilities with their peers without disabilities.

Although it is not an easy process, Badira Aliyeva, who teaches people how to make bead souvenirs in the same project, noted that, “At the start of the project the majority of the participants with disabilities were reserved, frightened, didn’t trust anyone and didn’t believe in themselves. For some of them, it was even difficult to be in a class for a couple of hours in a row, they wanted to leave, but after some months, they opened up, became more sociable, demonstrating a real talent – even revealing their sense of humour.”

Regardless of the degree of disability that may affect the performance in creating crafts, all students still benefit from the project’s social aspects. Saadat Tagiyeva, mother of 16-year-old Murad, recalls how the project helped her son with disabilities to become calmer and taught him to concentrate on other activities and skills he never managed to do before. After this progress, he was able to enter a Vocational Education Lyceum, where he studies to become a computer operator.

Another student with disability of the project, 15-year-old Fanara, who attends pottery and stained glass classes, says she wants to be an art or a primary school teacher when she grows up. “Time will tell. As for now, the most important thing for my daughter is to interact within society and to try different things to find her passion,” her mother, Gulmira Aliyeva says. There is one more bonus from the course – the family doesn’t need to buy tableware anymore since they use handmade plates created by Fanara.

Photo credit: Elena Kosolapova

In any case, the project expert and coordinator, Zarina Aliyeva, stresses that the effects of inclusive education must permeate the entire society. She tells a story of one of the female students with a mental disability, who got a job in service sector but resigned after a short time, in the absence of understanding from her colleagues. However, Ms. Aliyeva still assesses it as a positive case, as the project allowed the girl to build enough self-confidence to look for a job after many years of isolation at home, to explore new employment settings, to consult with project psychologist on various conflict situations and to make her own decisions.

The impact of PIETA can also be beneficial in teaching students without special needs. For example, Aytekin Feyruzova 31-year-old young lady who attends courses, was able to achieve the skills she needs to work with children in the future, as she explains “We usually believe that we know how to behave with people with disabilities, but in fact it is not true; now I have developed genuine knowledge.”

The pottery teacher, Saleh Mammadov, who also works in the State Academy of Fine Arts, regrets that inclusive education was not part of the system when his brother with disability had been alive. Although all the family activities were planned with his brother’s different abilities in mind, people with disabilities were rarely included in secondary or high school at that time. It is with this project that Mr. Mammadov has learned scientific techniques to deal with the challenges of students with disabilities, and has since realized that his family didn’t know how to help his brother to develop.

This further reaffirms the ultimate goal of PIETA. As Mr. Mammadov confirms, “Teaching art doesn’t necessarily mean making an artist out of every single student. First of all, we teach our students to love art and understand its beauty. Their future occupation is secondary. The same applies to the students in the Academy. If one person out of ten graduates will eventually work in art, it is a good result. If our faculty discovers a genius artist in 3-5 years, our efforts are paid off; the most important thing is to educate people through art, expand their horizons, and develop their aesthetic sense. It is a pleasure to see their masterpieces make them and their parents happy – their joy and laughter is the biggest reward.”

Photo credit: Elena Kosolapova

However, the success of an inclusive education system is only as good as the teachers’ knowledge and skills. In this sense, the EU funded two more projects during 2018 – 2020, including the “Ensure Teachers Readiness for Inclusive Education” project, which was implemented by Azerbaijan’s most active civil society organization: established at the initiative of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, Regional Development Public Union, teamed up with two co-partner not-for-profit organizations – the Local Governance Assistance Public Union and the Public Union for Research of Social Rights.

The Head of International Cooperation Department of the Regional Development Public Union, Leyla Taghiyeva, explains that their action made inclusive education the top priority for the country’s key educational institutions. The results count, not only by breaking down barriers and the stigma within the teachers’ community, but also the project-produced material that went viral on social media, confronting citizens about their own attitude towards disability.

Ms. Taghiyeva also explains how the project is preparing the traditional Azerbaijani education system to embrace inclusive education. In teamwork with another EU-funded project – “Expanding inclusive quality education for children with disabilities in Azerbaijan”, implemented by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, all of them together have trained formal in-service teachers; integrated new modules on inclusive education into the State Universities curriculum, and established nine inclusive Education Resource Centers in regional schools to provide materials, equipment, and local professional support and resources to teachers, school principals and parents.

Returning to the experts’ point of view, in the white paper on, “Strengthening Inclusion Strategies for Children with Disabilities Within the Context of Care Reform,” Gwendolyn Burchell points out that when a system is built for children with disabilities, it is a system that works for all children. Still, a system designed for children without disabilities first is a system that will continue to exclude. Azerbaijan is moving in the right direction, but it is necessary to give continuity to the processes and that both the government and donors continue to finance the implementation of inclusive educational policies, especially now that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic tends to leave people with disabilities even more isolated.