Across much of the world, children with a disability are increasingly being supported to attend mainstream schools and are not segregated from their peers. This was not the case in Turkey.
A decade ago, the laws in Turkey weren’t enabling the education system to provide a proper education for children with special needs.
Seher Arslan and her friends set about changing this.
When Seher gave birth to her son Efe prematurely and he was found to have CP, she stopped her work as a teacher to become his full time carer, therapist, teacher and aide.
When Efe was young, Seher used to sit with other parents in the waiting room of the rehabilitation centre while their children were having physical therapy. They would share their worries about the future of their children, especially when it came to education.
“Some of our children were three years old. Some were school age. We had a lot of problems in education. Teachers and school administrators wouldn’t accept our children in their schools”, Seher said.
The families decided to all work together to advocate for equal rights for education for all children, irrespective of their disability. They founded an association on behalf of children with CP called SERÇEV – the Association for the Well Being of Children with Cerebral Palsy – in 2002.
The group knew they would be stronger in front of the government if they were all together.
“We visited the law makers, politicians, senators. There were other NGOs working too, of course. Finally, in 2005 the education laws started to be revised on behalf of children with disabilities”, Seher said.
SERCEV’s first project was creating the country’s first inclusive kindergarten, primary school and middle school.
“There was no inclusive school in Ankara or Turkey. In general, if a teacher accepted a child with a disability, the student was ‘lucky’. It all depended on the teacher and the school administration”, Seher said.
SERCEV was determined to change this, in a true example of innovation and drive to create a real difference in the education space for children with disabilities.
“After founding SERÇEV with 60 families, we had a meeting and invited the Minister of Education. He didn’t say no. He wanted to listen to the families”, Seher said.
“At the end of the meeting, after listening to the needs of the children with CP, he was sentimental and promised to make a pilot inclusive school in Ankara possible”, she said.
The creation of the school, named Gökkuşağı, wasn’t without its challenges. While the estate for it was gifted, SERCEV had to find a volunteer architect and also hold a series of fundraising events to raise much-needed funds. They did television announcements and visited many companies to gain support. The building and interior design took two years.
Children without disabilities were registered at the school first. In the first year there were two secondary school classes, nine primary school classes and three special education classes. The teachers were trained in teaching inclusive classes, how to prepare individual education plans for students with disabilities, and special education. Three years on, more and more children with and without disabilities had registered.
All the hard work certainly paid off, with the creation of a unique and innovative school that doesn’t exclude anyone – it caters for students of all ages and abilities. 525 students now attend the school, and 155 of these have CP.
Design for inclusion
“The building itself is U shaped, so there are two hallways of classes. One has inclusive classrooms and inside each of the class there are two students with CP who can mainstream. In the other hallway there are special education classes with their own curriculum, for four or five students with CP”, Seher said.
“They all can play in the same playground and garden, and use the same cafeteria. We also added a preschool and kindergarten three years after the school opened.”
“There is a waiting room for the moms where they stay while their children are in the classrooms. They just don’t sit, but do knitting, stitching, all kinds of hobbies. We have a teacher also to teach them different kinds of handcrafting”, she said.
10 years after it opened, the school has many success stories of children with CP.
“There are students with friendships with others, with and without a disability, and happier students, teachers, and parents of all children. The Ministers of Education send visitors from different countries to Gökkuşağı to see a model school”, Seher said.
SERCEV didn’t stop there, building the first inclusive playground in Turkey in 2008, realised through a European Union funded project in 2008. Their latest big project is an inclusive vocational high school.
The best education
Underpinning all of her efforts with SERCEV is Seher’s passion for giving her son the best education possible.
“Before Efe started primary school, we visited a number of schools in Ankara. Some said they had enough students with disabilities. One of the schools didn’t say much. Efe continued his primary education there for a year. The class teacher didn’t know what to do with him at all. His education all depended on me, as I was staying with him in the classroom during lessons as his aide. He even asked me what grade he should give on his report card”, Seher said.
“Then Gökkuşağı opened and he continued primary school there in an inclusive classroom. He had a teacher who was trained about inclusive classrooms. He was very happy in his new school and class, and was happy with his teacher and his friends. He gained more confidence and got more successful with his lessons”, she said.
As for the future, Seher feels there is still a lot to do.
“Our latest big project is an inclusive vocational school. The building for it is almost ready. We are working with the government. On programs for the school, based on other models from different countries”, Seher said.
“We are the pioneers here to make a way for the kids with CP. People and organisations must work together to be listened by the law makers or the community. We are stronger when we are together. Each year there is progress, slowly but surely”, she said.