In an interview last spring, the mother of two Kazakh boys with cerebral palsy said to Human Rights Watch, “Knowledge is important. If [my sons] lack knowledge, they lack understanding and they’ll end up on the margins. The margins of society.”
Her words are echoed in the title of a report released today by Human Rights Watch — “On the Margins” Education for Children with Disabilities in Kazakhstan.
The report, authored by HRW senior Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann, lays out a complex picture of commitments made by Kazakhstan to ensure that 70 percent of mainstream schools are inclusive by 2019, but significant failings in achieving that target. Astana, the report argues, is hamstrung by its approach to inclusive education and “negative attitudes” toward people with disabilities in Kazakhstan.
Over the course of 150 interviews with children and young adults with disabilities, families and activists in six Kazakh cities, as well as visits to inclusive schools, special schools, various institutions and government offices, HRW has put together a nuanced look at the state of education for children with disabilities in Kazakhstan.
One problematic part of the Kazakh approach to education for children with disabilities is the Psychological-Medical-Pedagogical Consultation (PMPK) process.
“The process of assessing children with disabilities in Kazakhstan is still highly medicalized, which is not the case in countries that take a social or human rights approach to disability,” Rittmann told The Diplomat.
PMPKs usually consist of doctors, a speech therapist, a psychologist and other specialists who, under the organization of local education departments or the the Ministry of Education and Science, assess children with disabilities. Their conclusions include a “recommendation” on whether a particular child should go to a mainstream school, a special school or be educated at home.
“In countries that have moved away from a medical approach, the default position of assessment bodies, which include inputs from a wider range of people who know the child well — is not whether a child can go to school, but to assess the child for the purposes of determining the supports (reasonable accommodations) he or she needs to be able to go to school,” Rittmann explained.
The PMPK process, as described by parents and children to HRW, is stressful and at times rushed and superficial. Furthermore, the recommendation issued is decidedly more than what the word “recommendation” suggests. In some cases, parents described being denied access to a mainstream school because their child’s PMPK recommendation stated otherwise. One woman, named as Dina in the report, said she’d friend to enroll her son with autism in a school in Kostanay but official asked to see his PMPK assessment. “At the school, they said, we will not take him. So actually, it’s not a recommendation from the PMPK, but a verdict,” she said.
Kazakh efforts to expand the PMPK system, the report states, “will not address the more fundamental issue that PMPK commissions currently serve as a barrier for many children to access inclusive education.”
While international law, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, sets out standards to be met, the fact is that negative attitudes and discrimination toward people with disabilities is a global, societal problem. It is not unique to Kazakh society, either. A series of reports in 2015 and 2016 regarding the inclusion of children with disabilities in Australia, New Zealand and the UK uncovered similar issues. Writing in The Conversation in 2016, David Roy, a lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle, noted that a report from the auditor-general of the Australian state of New South Wales stated that a quarter of 300 respondents said “they had been told there was no place for their child at their local school.”
“When children were given a place,” Roy wrote, “the report found that teachers often refused or were reluctant to make adjustments, due to poor attitudes towards disability.”
Inclusion in mainstream schools and regular interaction with other children ought to help evolve negative societal attitudes and breakdown stigma. Kazakh authorities, Rittmann told The Diplomat, could also make efforts “to ensure people with disabilities are visible in society.” Knowledge, training, and experience can go a long way.
“People with disabilities can be hired to hold government positions, or work in offices, hospitals, and mainstream schools. Kazakhstan’s leadership at local, regional, and national levels can set an example of inclusion of people with disabilities that others can follow.”
Ultimately, Kazakh authorities should turn their attention to the children themselves. With a wide range of disabilities — from the physical to the developmental — the authorities should focus on and use the PMPK process to assess what reasonable accommodations a given child requires, the report recommends.
“Instead of focusing on efforts to make schools or school buildings ‘inclusive,’ authorities can focus their efforts on the support needs of individual children,” Rittmann said. “For many children with disabilities, the supports they need to be able go to school on an equal basis with others are not out of reach. It could be moving a particular class to the first floor, or giving children extra time to do tasks at school.”
Another step that Kazakh authorities could take would be to better publicize the rights of parents and children to an inclusive education, Rittman said. “Make that information widely available – on TV, on the radio, in schools and clinics.”