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Giving Children With Disabilities In Ukraine A Chance

Giving Children With Disabilities In Ukraine A ChanceTufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development has been a model for the creation and enhancement of a learning center for children with special needs in Ukraine.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.06.05] When Oleg Svet returned to his native Ukraine earlier this year as part of a cross-cultural exchange program for American and Ukrainian college students, the Tufts sophomore was immediately struck by a small educational center, tucked in the Bet-Hana Teaching Seminary for Women, that stood out from the rest of its surroundings.

"When you are there, you see how the roads are not good, the buildings are not good and, all of a su dden, you see Bet-Hana - an amazing place," says Svet, an international relations major, describing his initial encounter with the Educational Resource Center (ERC), a learning center for children with physical, developmental and learning disabilities.


Wertlieb describes the physical evolution of the ERC

Wertlieb discusses a dilemma facing ERC professionals

During his trip, which focused on advocacy and human rights and was sponsored by a variety of local and national Jewish organizations, including the Hillel Foundation at Tufts, Svet spent some time at the ERC. Even though he moved from Ukraine to Israel at age four and then to the United States nine years later, the uniqueness of an institution like the ERC was plainly apparent to him.

"[It] was just beautiful," he says. "In Ukraine it is sad because usually people who have handicaps are kept at home ... and it doesn't have to be that way."

The ERC, a joint effort of Boston's Jewish Family & Children's Service Special Needs Initiative and the Bet-Hana Teaching Seminary, is one attempt to prove Svet right. These organizations teamed up to open the center in 1999 and turned to Tufts University's Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development for guidance in shaping the center's teaching philosophies and methodologies.

"We have a very long tradition of leadership in providing access for children with disabilities to the mainstream and, now, what we call inclusive settings. That very much fit with what these folks were looking for," Don Wertlieb, a Tufts child development professor and Hillel Board member, says about the roots of the partnership between Eliot-Pearson and the teaching seminary.

Wertlieb, who provides ongoing consultation to the center, first heard about this "groundbreaking project" in Ukraine from a former Tufts faculty member and remembers being "immediately attracted to both the importance of the work and the potential for it to serve a variety of needs both for the people in Ukraine and for students and faculty here at Tufts who were looking for ways to be more out there in the world doing work on behalf of children."

The relationship between Tufts and the ERC began with informational meetings, Wertlieb says. He first traveled to Ukraine seven years ago with a team of Tufts experts to educate leaders at the teaching seminary about the progressive activities that were taking place at Eliot-Pearson.

"The folks at the teacher's college there became immediately -- I can only call it amazed -- at the different ideas we were bringing from Tufts about how children with special needs can be able and competent learners," Wertlieb says.

The teaching seminary invited Wertlieb and his colleagues from TuftsGroup at Bet-Hana to become part of the creation of the ERC. He says that they were excited not only at the opportunity to have a hand in building the center from scratch, but also to help increase awareness in Ukraine about people with physical, developmental and learning disabilities.

As Svet points out, people with disabilities in Ukraine are often shunned and discriminated against; some are even rendered housebound by their physical limitations. Making matters worse, the healthcare and education systems are not equipped to meet the needs of this population.

"A very unpleasant and hostile environment [was] part of what we were facing," Wertlieb explains. But that didn't deter the creators of the ERC from trying to effect change through education. They first targeted the parents of disabled children to inform them about the ERC and encourage them to become involved.

"When I was there the first time, I visited some of the families in their homes and got to know some of the issues that they were struggling with," Wertlieb says about the visits he describes as "dramatic and profound."

"A notion that people even cared about them or their children was, indeed, a shocking idea to some of them," Wertlieb says. "And then when we were able to convey not only that we care, but that we actually had some ideas and some programs that could make a difference and that the child could begin spending serious and useful hours in an educational setting - this became quite exciting and intriguing to them."

From that point on, Wertlieb says, parents of children attending the ERC became its best advocates. And the educational efforts are ongoing, he says.

"The increasing consciousness and awareness has been a big part of our work, so when we have teams there, we talk not only to the families we are working with, [but also] to other families in the community and families in the regular school system," Wertlieb explains. "We run programs that are educational and useful to a much broader population."

According to Wertlieb, who tries to travel back to Ukraine at least once a year with a team of specialists from Tufts to conduct consultations, University delegations also work with government officials to increase awareness about civil liberties for Ukrainian citizens when they are there.

Group at Bet-HanaThe college students who are in training at the ERC and working hands-on with the children are another important group of advocates. They are the people who carry the message out into communities, bring their special education training to classrooms in "regular" schools and are expected to push for the creation of places like the ERC across the rest of Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

"We are making [the students] more aware in terms of being able to alter [Ukrainians'] attitudes about people with disabilities and to appreciate the unique contributions that any individual can make to a social setting, a work setting," Wertlieb says.

While the students in Ukraine are being trained to work with children with special needs and advocate for them in the community, some of their American counterparts studying child development at Eliot-Pearson are also involved with the ERC, even if it's just from a distance.

Wertlieb points out that when professionals from the ERC come to Tufts for trainings, students here have an opportunity to meet with them and get a taste for what life is like in Ukraine.

"I think that any opportunity that United States students get to appreciate [different cultures] around the world makes the quality of their education much richer," he says. "And, of course, many of our students, when they leave here, will be looking at positions that involve work in a global economy. By virtue of these kinds of experiences, they are a little more tuned in to some of the opportunities and some of the challenges involved in working in a global system."

According to Wertlieb, each time visitors from the teaching seminary come to Tufts, they leave with dozens of new ideas about special education based on what is going on at Eliot-Pearson. As a result of this arrangement, the ERC's coordinator, Tamara Olshanytska, fondly refers to the center as Ukraine's own "little Eliot-Pearson," Wertlieb says with a smile.

And isn't it great, he adds, to have this small "piece of Tufts prospering in Ukraine."

(Photos courtesy of Oleg Svet and Danielle Warner)


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