Commentary: Disabled children don't have to sit in the corner
The recent remarks by Czech President Miloš Zeman about inclusion have sparked a stormy discussion here. "I am not an advocate of the opinion that children who are handicapped in a certain way should be placed into classrooms with non-handicapped pupils, because that is unfortunate for both," the President said at the Rehabilitation Institute in Brandýs nad Orlicí as part of his visit to the Pardubice Region.
"This is not racism, nor is it a preference for an ethnic group, but children are far happier when they are in a community of their equals... From the point of view of their well-being, it is far better that the practical classes exist... I do not like [inclusion] at all,.. I am against it," the President said.
I know a boy named Tomáš who is 13 years old and cannot hear. Other children used to shun him.
They laughed at him, poured water on his bed at summer camp and greatly enjoyed it when he could not explain to the adults that he had not wet the bed himself. One of the managers of the camp said "we aren't set up for such children" and yelled at me for spending too much time with him and loaning him my mobile phone.
She told me he was taking my time away from the other children. We were using my mobile phone to communicate by text message because it was faster than sign language.
The manager just lost it over Tomáš, she honestly exploited every opportunity she could to yell at him. Sometimes it never even occurred to her that he couldn't hear her.
It also never occurred to her that even though her own eyes were perfectly functional, she was as blind as a mole. She couldn't see what she needed to see because it had never even occurred to her to try.
She couldn't see how complicated and confused his home life was, that he didn't even spend much time at home, because most of the year he lived in a dormitory with children who shared his disability. She couldn't see that even though his parents had sent him there believing he would be "with his own kind", he misses his mother all the same.
She couldn't see that he was at the summer camp to spend some time among "normal children" and that he felt completely isolated there, the most alone that he had ever been. She didn't see what he liked, what he feared, she didn't see the jokes he made to pay back the other children, she didn't see when he succeeded and the others laughed with him sincerely (not at him) and how glad it made him.
She didn't see his joy at receiving his first canvas sneakers, which had been found in a humanitarian clothing collection somewhere, how his eyes sparkled even though each shoe was a different size. She didn't see how enthusiastic he was to learn that my mobile phone could access the internet so he could find a film on YouTube in which he had played a role when he was a little boy, and she didn't see how we showed it that evening on a screen outside, how the other children looked at him with gazes full of recognition, and even though Tomáš couldn't hear it, the other boys said: "Dude, even though he's deaf, he's pretty cool, dude, like, awesome, right?"
I also know Anička. She is seven years old.
She arrived at the camp from home with one pair of flip-flops, two t-shirts, one little skirt and one pair of shorts. This was not enough clothing, given that she wet her pants almost every day and they had to be constantly laundered.
The children made enormous fun of her. They did things to her that were cruel and low.
When they laughed at her, they were genuinely amused. So Anička did things to spite them, she knew how to be unbearably ornery.
Other times, dressed in an adult's t-shirt dragging down to her heels because she didn't have anything else (her other things were hanging up to dry) she would move into her own world. She would play by herself outside with terribly sad eyes.
One time, as we were all walking to the water, Helena and Maruška joined us, first-rate adolescents for whom everything is boring and embarrassing, dude. They talked about how weird Anička was, how she peed herself, how she stinks and how there must be something wrong with her, right?
I will never forget that conversation. "Well, Anička doesn't have it easy at home now," said Martin, who had loaned the child his big t-shirt when she had nothing else to wear.
Martin was not a manager at the camp, he didn't have training "in children" or a college education, he hadn't taken any courses. He explained to Helena and Maruška that they were old enough to understand that a seven-year-old girl who has not had much luck in life might pee her pants without it necessarily meaning that she is stupid, or that she is doing it on purpose because it amuses her, but that there must be a reason - it might not be easy to see, but it also won't be hard to understand, and it's not just as simple as calling her "weird".
That evening by the campfire one of the boys yelled at Anička not to sit next to him because she had peed herself - and Helena alnd Maruška looked up from their nail polish. They headed for the boy's crowd, took the shouter aside, and lit into him with all the verve of kids their age.
"You moron, like I get it, but did it ever occur to you that this little girl has some kind of problem? Like, think first, right, and leave her be, do you know how she must feel, dude?" they asked him.
I also know Marek, who is more than 20 years old, is almost completely blind, and represents the Czech Republic as a top-notch athlete. He is going to college and making a living as a professional masseur.
I wish you could hear him talk about how he is where he is only thanks to the fact that his mother gritted her teeth and let him, from a young age, get his knees scraped out among the "normal children" instead of keeping him at home on her lap. I wish you could see how much he loves life and how bravely he handles everything that comes his way.
I also know Věrka, who has been lying in a special bed since early childhoold - no one can precisely estimate how much she knows about the world around her, she survives like a flower. And I know Matěj, who makes the fourth grade unbearable - his diagnosis is "churlish stinker".
He's not in a wheelchair, he doesn't have a single dysfunction, but the teacher has her hands full working with him, to the detriment of the other children. There are many, many other such children whom I do not know.
It's all the same whether the disadvantage these children suffer is physical or something in their heads, if it's because of who is in their family or the fact that they have no family at all. It's all the same whether it's because they have too little of one thing and not enough of something else, if they were born this way or got hit by a car, and it really doesn't matter whether they are Romani or Vietnamese, from southern Moravia or the Republic of South Africa.
Every single one of them has the right to get the chance to take advantage of their specific potential to the fullest possible extent. It doesn't always have to be easy for them or easy with them - but that's what we adults are here for.
If a summer camp manager takes a wrongheaded view of children with any kind of problem, then that person has a problem with herself or himself and should not be working with children. We know all about such people, don't we?
One of my favorite sayings is "If you want to fly, don't ask a chicken whether you'll succeed." As for Mr President: Does he know any Aničkas, Mareks or Tomášes, or does he only encounter "normal people" in politics?
Is his blanket sentencing of all disabled children to keep to themselves really so much better from the standpoint of their well-being? Does he seriously not see that not every person with a disability must be removed from regular life?
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