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Education is seen by most of the participants in the post-2015 agenda forum as ‘a key for building an inclusive society’ (UNICEF and International Disability Alliance, 2013). As H. Brighouse points out in his 2006 book ‘On Education‘, it is one of the most powerful tools for promoting self-government, economic participation, flourishing, and citizenship. However, 57 million children in the world are deprived of access to education according to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2013/2014. Often they are denied such access because of a disability they are born with. In Bulgaria, children are entitled to free and compulsory education until the age of 16. However, children with disabilities are often challenged to exercise this statutory right, or face obstacles to receiving a quality and inclusive education. The paper will offer a brief review of the present system of special educational needs support in the country in the context of growing efforts for synchronizing Bulgarian law with the pro-inclusive international legislation.
Inaccessible education is considered by the Union of Persons with Disabilities in Bulgaria (UPDB) one of the major obstacles to the integration of persons with disabilities in the life of the community in their Strategy for Achieving a Dignified Life for the People with Disabilities, 2009-2013. The National Programme for Development of School Education and Pre-School Education and Training (2006-2015) reports a ‘worrying’ high percentage of children who are excluded from the system of education, the majority being children from risk groups (including those with disabilities) and of Roma origin.
There are a number of factors that impede children with disabilities’ inclusion in the education system. A leading factor appears to be family socio-economic status. According to Save the Children, Bulgaria takes 43rd place in the State of the World’s Mothers Report (one of the last ones among the EU countries, followed only by Malta, Hungary, and Romania). Having a child with a disability in the family additionally incurs lowering of the parents’ potential income. As qualifying for a social assistant is impeded by a number of legal and bureaucratic inconsistencies [you can read more about these here], often one of the parents of a child with disability needs to play the role of a 24-hour care-giver. Inaccessible architectural environment and transport are other factors that seriously affect school attendance. The Academic Network of European Disability Experts (ANED)’s 2012 Country Report on Accessibility revealed that only 5 out of 176 schools in the capital of Sofia are totally accessible. Another serious barrier to successful inclusion is the lack of extensive training for teachers in the area of special educational needs. Furthermore, negative attitudes of some teachers and parents to the enrollment of children with special educational needs in mainstream settings are still observable, especially in regard to children with intellectual disabilities.
Only 5 out of 176 schools in the capital of Sofia are totally accessible. – ANED, 2012
Bulgaria still follows the two-track model of education. The total number of special schools for 2013/2014 was 71, out of which 47 are for children with intellectual disabilities, according to the National Statistical Institute‘s data from 2014. ANED’s 2010 Country Report on Equality of Educational and Training Opportunities for Young Disabled People about Bulgaria states that children and pupils with special educational needs in inclusive settings ‘account for only 1.4% of the total number of students in the education system, which is remarkably low for an EU member state’. Legislative changes in the last 12 years have introduced a favourable foundation for a change towards inclusion. The year 2002 marked a breakthrough as amendments to the Public Education Act 1991 (PEA) postulated that children with special education needs and/or chronic illnesses are enrolled in mainstream kindergartens and schools, which are obliged to accept them. According to this Act (art. 27) children can be sent to special schools only if all opportunities for integration ‘have been exhausted’ and if the parents express such a wish in writing. In 2003, the National Plan for the Integration of Children with Special Educational Needs and/or Chronic Illnesses set as a main goal the ‘phased introduction of integrated education’, and determined the specific responsibilities of each state institution. Article 42 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 2004 (ADA) binds educational institutions to undertake appropriate measures in order to equalize the opportunities for effective exercising of the right for education and learning to persons with disabilities, except for the cases when the expenses for that are unjustifiably large and would present a serious difficulty for the institution. Article 17 (2) of the Act on the Integration of People with Disabilities 2004 (AIPD) postulated that the Ministry for Education and Science provides ‘supportive environment for integrated education of children with disabilities’.
To facilitate the building of such a supportive environment, article 16 of the AIPD and, in 2009, Regulation 1 for the Education of Children and Pupils with Special Educational Needs and/or Chronic Illnesses attributed to resource centres a prominent role as mediators of the integration of children with SEN into mainstream schools. These state-funded institutions offer consultations to children, parents, classroom teachers, devise special teaching materials, and provide schools with special needs/resource teachers who instruct children together with the classroom teacher (art. 16), and individually or in groups (art. 17). However, ANED’s 2010 report on the student enrolment in inclusive education and teaching support shows that ‘the growth in number of students is not matched by the number of resource teachers engaged in the system’ and elaborates that ‘this is often mentioned as one of the reasons for the questionable outputs’. The lack of enough professional adult support in the classrooms was highlighted in an 2013 interview with the president of the Association for Resource teachers, Kaloyan Damianov: ‘About 11,000 children with special educational needs are in the mainstream schools and we can’t expect that the frontal system of teaching that was developed years ago when children with special educational needs were segregated in separate schools will respond to the numerous needs of these children’. ANED’s 2010 report also notices that ‘personal assistance at school or at work is not available to Bulgarian children and adults’ and ‘one of the problems that resource centres’ staff share (anecdotally) is a lack of assistance in school for children who need it, which either prevents them from enrolment or it makes it very difficult to attend classes’.
‘We can’t expect that the frontal system of teaching that was developed years ago when children with special educational needs were segregated in separate schools will respond to the numerous needs of these children’ – K. Damianov, 2013
A year-old legislative change, which has been welcomed and, as a matter of fact, demanded by parents’ organizations and NGOs, is the introduction of the so-called combined education. An amendment to the present Public Education Act was voted in September 2013, which allowed for pupils to be taught both in class and individually. In the past, flexible timetable and activities were practiced in some schools but that was not supported by a particular legislative act, except for gifted children and those who were absent from school for health reasons. V. Tsolova, representative of the Steps for the Invisible Children of Bulgaria Foundation and a parent of a child with an autistic spectrum disorder expresses her satisfaction with the new arrangement as in her opinion some children need individual instruction where they will not disturb the other children in the class, but will also receive the chance to learn social skills in the less academic subjects (to see an interview with her, click here).
The fact that a combined form of education, where children with disabilities are only partially involved in learning and social interaction with their peers, is considered a positive step towards inclusion in Bulgaria is quite significant. In UPDB’s Value Chart, the section concerning Education for All states: ‘We should have equal access to education, special or mainstream in integrated setting, and should be given the right of choice to decide about our educational needs and wishes’. This statement, as well as Tsolova’s position presented above, illustrate that disability rights organisations and NGOs in Bulgaria tend to assume quite a moderate stand on educational inclusion. At the present moment they do not demand the overthrow the two-track system, but are struggling to be given a choice. This is conditioned by the unpreparedness of most mainstream schools to cater for children with disabilities’ needs. In UPDB’s opinion, the educational institutions are ready neither physically, nor program-wise to include young people with disabilities in the education process.
We should be given the right of choice – UPDB, 2009
Education has a major role to play in empowering people with disabilities to secure a financially stable and personally fulfilling life. Education is not a goal in itself but a means to achieving well-being through the development of persons’ capabilities. In his 2006 book ‘On Education‘, Brighhouse highlights its ‘life-enhancing mission’. For the achievement of accessible and quality education in Bulgaria, UPDB identifies two major fields of action: a) continuation of the policy of inclusive education of children with special educational needs, and b) optimizing the system of special schools. Though this seems to be an adequate aspiration for the present moment, there should be a greater determination for reducing the number of students in special schools. This, however cannot be accomplished before a favourable supporting environment is developed in the mainstream schools.
Although financial reasons might slow down the transformative processes, these cannot be viewed as a justifiable obstacle as according to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2013 Report ‘in Bulgaria, the budget per child educated in a special school can be up to three times higher than that for a similar child in a regular school’. A valid suggestion to solve the insufficiency of mainstream schools’ specialist support expressed by Save the Children in their Position Paper Inclusion in Bulgaria: How much Remains to be Done? from 2006, is to redirect the resource centres and resource teachers to the schools themselves. Such a restructuring measure will enable them to provide direct specialist support to both school staff and pupils. Advancing the expertise of teachers is another route that has yet to be trodden. It necessitates the inclusion of special needs education in the training programmes of all newly qualifying teachers, assertion of its principles among experienced practitioners, as well as a nation-wide campaign for raising awareness to disability among both parents and teachers.
(Head picture: © Moyan Brenn)
Blagovesta Troeva works at the Department of English at New Bulgarian University, Sofia. She obtained her first Master’s degree in British and American Studies at Sofia University, Bulgaria. While her career develops in the field of foreign language teaching, she also has profound interests in human rights, anti-discrimination, inclusion and learning difficulties. She has completed the Erasmus Mundus Special and Inclusive Education – a joined Master’s programme of the University of Roehampton, London, Oslo University, and Charles University, Prague.