After more than two months of futile searching for a school able to accommodate her disabled son, Laima has not given up. A 36-year-old single mother, Laima (not her real name) has been scouring Kaunas for an accessible school for 12-year-old Lukas, who uses a wheelchair, ahead of her planned move to the country’s second city.
As the parent of a disabled child, Laima knows how hard it can be for such children at school, even when the physical infrastructure is in place to make it easier for them to get around. Her son’s previous school in a provincial town was partly adapted for special-needs children, and the staff were helpful and caring, she says, although some kids called him “cripple” and other names.
In each of the past two years the government has allocated the equivalent of about $25 million to adapt schools for 9,000 special-needs children, 2,000 of whom are considered disabled by the Education Ministry.
Laima is aware of the plethora of programs to retrofit schools and integrate children of varying physical and intellectual abilities into mainstream classrooms. She also sees a gap between laws and policies, on the one hand, and what actually goes on in schools on the other.
“At first glance, the legislation on special-needs children seems all right, until you encounter the harsh reality. Most schools, even after EU-funded renovation, remain inhospitable to the children,” she said.
Failure to live up to legal standards on integrating the disabled – highlighted by rising public awareness of their needs – is not confined to this small Baltic country. Two years ago the EU’s education commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, said that despite member states’ commitments to push inclusive education, “children with special educational needs and disabled adults are still getting a raw deal.”
Many such children continue to be assigned to segregated schools and those in mainstream schools often receive inadequate support, the commissioner said in a press release.
Against the backdrop of the EU’s focus on the needs of disabled people, Laima’s task – find a school equipped with ramps and an elevator – seemed simple. That was until she began looking.
“I called several reputable schools in the city and I always received the same answer: the educational facilities were not adapted, or only partly suitable, for my child,” she complained.
“Even more frustrating, the schools that boast on their websites of being equipped with special ramps, broader doors, and elevators for children with mobility problems, in reality appear to be not suitable for the handicapped.”
Several school principals told her the information on their websites gave a misleading picture and admitted some of the promised accessibility features didn’t work or simply weren’t there.
The Education Ministry insists it is serious about retrofitting schools.
“According to the Education Law, access to education for children with special educational needs is guaranteed through appropriate adaptations to the school environment. In addition, psychological, special pedagogical, and other educational support is available to the children,” the ministry’s press office said.
However, the plaque on a school stating it has been adapted to disabled children’s needs in conformity with EU school standards may not be entirely accurate.
“Though our school formally corresponds to the EU school requirements, unfortunately we lack ramps and an elevator. We have been kind of fortunate not to have a pupil who would need special attention and require those facilities,” admitted Vaida Kaikariene, a primary-school principal in the resort of Palanga in western Lithuania.
If a wheelchair user wanted to enroll at the school, municipal regulations require that the local education department be informed three months prior to the child’s start date so that the necessary arrangements can be made, she said.
That is the theory, but in practice this may not be feasible.
“I really doubt whether the municipality would be able to prepare all the required technical documentation and complete the necessary work in three months. Especially when it comes to installing an elevator,” said the deputy head of the Palanga municipal administration, Bronius Martinkus.
He conceded such a child would “probably” be assigned to another school with separate facilities for special-needs children.
Danguole, a mother whose son attends a special-needs class in Palanga, said she is very happy with the care and attention he receives.
“But ideally, I’d prefer he be taught with other children, in an ordinary class. However, I understand that for the sake of the educational process, segregation may be inevitable for now,” she conceded.
About 4,200 pupils, or 1.2 percent of the total, were enrolled in segregated schools for special-needs children, and another 850 pupils were in segregated classes in mainstream schools, according to the 2012 European Commission press release.
Schools Exploit Legal Loophole
The pace of school renovations is picking up with a boost from EU funds, but thanks to a gaping loophole, schools can comply with the law while remaining inaccessible to some children.
“Rather weirdly … the construction law includes an exception that exempts educational facilities from installing disabled children-adapted facilities during renovation. This is kind of baloney, but that’s how it is,” said Jolanta Sliuziene, deputy director of the disability affairs department at the Ministry of Social Security and Labor.
“We weren’t aware of this provision until we stumbled upon it in practice. It’s really hard to conceive how this flawed law passed the scrutiny of dozens of lawyers and the legislators,” she added.
She said some schools have avoided costly full retrofits by calling the work “renovation” or “modernization” instead of using the term “reconstruction,” which obligates schools to install ramps, special elevators, broader classroom doors, and larger bathrooms.
A representative of the Environment Ministry’s planning and construction inspectorate, Saimona Tiskuviene, confirmed that the current construction legislation exempts schools from installing facilities adapted to the disabled but rejected the idea that the exemption was used to keep disabled students out. Instead, she said, the scope of retrofits depends on the financing model each school chooses.
Of 1,191 schools in Lithuania, 689 are fully adapted or partly adapted to the needs of children with mobility problems, according to the Education Ministry.
Laima, who continues to look for a school suitable for her partially paralyzed son, says remarks by some Kaunas school principals and officials have stung.
“I was warned that a disabled child is too much of a burden even to schools with the necessary facilities. In fact, some of the principals I talked to, though showing a good deal of compassion, tried to cajole me out of my intention to enroll my son in their school,” the mother said.
Rimante Juodeniene, director of the school-financing division at the Kaunas municipal authority, said city schools have been carrying out retrofits through three programs.
“However, at this point, I cannot say which of the schools will be accessible to physically disabled children. Financing for adapting schools for special-needs pupils is not provided by many governmental programs as local municipalities have to take care of it,” Juodeniene said.
However, an attitude still prevails that handicapped children ought to be kept out of sight, a senior Education Department official in Kaunas said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said city councilors “always scowl” at requests to finance school retrofits.
“There is still a strong misconception that a physically impaired child ought to be given home education, as he or she would be a distraction in a conventional class,” the official said.
Overall, though, the past 20 years have seen significant improvements in the treatment of special-needs children, argues Nijole Milkeviciene, head of an association that advocates for better conditions for the disabled.
“The approach to less health advantaged children is changing little by little. I’ve taken part in many openings after school makeovers, and I’ve seen conditions for these children improve. We just need some more time to accelerate the process,” she said.
She cautioned though, “The question remains whether their peers as well as the teachers and the public are ready for the change.”
Linas Jegelevicius is a freelance journalist in Klaipeda, Lithuania.