Today Isabell counts
25 years after she began fighting for her own daughter’s right to education, Rosa Montana is unable to hold back the tears when she hears Isabell say “I no longer feel there are any limits. Things may be difficult at times, but never impossible.” Rosa’s long battle is beginning to show results.
Rosa is responsible for educational issues at the umbrella organisation FECONORI. She has taken me to OCN, the Swedish Federation for the Visually Impaired’s partner organisation in Nicaragua. As I approach and look through the gate at OCN’s building in central Managua, I see a veranda with wooden swing chairs. Two women sit close together, swinging gently. I can hear them talking and laughing. We go in through the gate and say hello to Isabell Massías González and Eliuth Martinez Fouseca.
Isabel is 17 years old and goes to upper secondary school. Eliuth is one of 11 special teachers employed by the Education Ministry to support students and train teachers in schools that have children and young persons with disabilities. This relatively new initiative is a result of FECONORI’s partnership with the Education Ministry to make schools more inclusive.
Isabel and Eliuth got to know each other just over a year ago, when Eliuth first visited Isabel’s school. It was a meeting that changed everything for Isabell.
A winding path full of challenges
When Isabell started school, she went to a special school for six years, along with other children with disabilities. She felt accepted there, but the school was a long way from home and only continued teaching up to Year six. After that, she had to choose between stopping school or moving to a mainstream school.
– Because I wanted to continue learning, I started at the same school as my brother. He was ashamed of me and the other students laughed at me. My mother was the only one who supported me and who believed in my capabilities. It was her support that kept me going, explains Isabell.
The teachers took no time to explain how she was supposed to do things. She was told to ask her classmates, who also showed no interest in her.
Once, she won a competition. She was the best in the class at memorising and reciting a long text from the Bible. The winner was supposed to go on and compete against other children from other schools. However, the teacher gave the prize to another student, because she didn’t think Isabell could go to another school and represent the class.
– I felt incredibly isolated and excluded in every way,” she says.
The school occupies two floors, with a spiral staircase connecting them. To avoid being bullied even more, Isabell stopped using her white stick. This made it difficult for her to get around the school. Several times, she nearly fell down the steep stairs. Nevertheless, the stick stayed at home and was used as a toy by her brothers.
Changing conditions revealed Isabell’s capabilities
When Eliuth came to the school, she immediately saw that Isabell lacked the right conditions to participate in school life. In the classroom, the students sat around big tables. The only one who sat with her back to the teacher was Isabell.
– My opinion was never important. The teachers didn’t bother asking me anything or adapting the teaching material so I could also take part.
Eliuth made sure the class was moved to a classroom that was more suitable for Isabell, with different furniture that made it easier for her to hear what the teachers said. Eliuth also taught the teachers different methods that would make the teaching more accessible for Isabell. She showed the maths teacher, for example, how he could let Isabell use her own body when trying to understand the meaning of a diagonal or other mathematical terms.
She also helped Isabell to organise her school bag, so she could find what she needed for the different lessons more easily and quickly. And she gave Isabell a new white stick, so she could make her way around the school.
Once the teachers and headteacher saw the effect of the changes Eliuth introduced, they became more positive in their attitude and gradually started to include Isabell in their lessons.
Inclusive education relies on everyone around having knowledge and understanding the needs
Eliuth visited Isabell’s school twice a month.
– It’s important to take a holistic approach. This means including the teachers, the headteacher, the family, the other students and their parents, and working on the student’s own attitude. Everyone has to want to change the situation for the better. There are often many different ways of doing this that needn’t cost a lot of money, says Eliuth.
– That’s where support from other countries is so vital. By exchanging experience with people from Sweden, we gain new ideas on what we can do, although we naturally have to adapt the work on change to our own local circumstances, she says.
It is clear that Isabell and Eliuth are close and that Eliuth has meant a great deal to Isabell, since her mother died and she has no longer had the same support at home. It has been a tough year, but today she seems relatively happy and can start making plans for the future.
– In a way, it’s become a bit more difficult, she says, smiling. I have to work much harder now, because much more is expected of me. But it’s worth it, because I’m also learning so much more. I have better contact with my classmates and I like going to school.
She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do with her life, but she knows that she wants to continue studying.
– I feel like there are so many different things I could do now. I no longer feel there are any limits. Things may be difficult at times, but never impossible, she says, turning her smiling face to Eliuth.
I sneak a glance at Rosa and see the tears starting to flow. Her 25-year fight for education has yielded results. Not for the person she started fighting for, her own daughter, but for other daughters and sons in Nicaragua. She sees things beginning to improve. There is still a long way to go, but there are now teachers, headteachers, families and children who know what inclusive education means and how it can be implemented, and who have seen first-hand what fantastic results it can bring.