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(Almaty) – A majority of children with disabilities in Kazakhstan are not getting a quality, inclusive education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Although the Kazakh government has taken some important steps to better protect the rights of children with disabilities, much more needs to be done to ensure equal access to education for all children.

The 72-page report, “‘On the Margins’: Education for Children with Disabilities in Kazakhstan” shows that Kazakhstan’s education system segregates and isolates children with disabilities. Even for children who can access schools in their communities, most are taught in separate classrooms with other children with disabilities. Thousands are in special schools for children with disabilities, often far from their homes. Others are educated at home, with a teacher visiting for a few hours per week at best. Children in closed psychiatric institutions receive very little or no education.

“Children with disabilities have a right to a quality, inclusive education, with reasonable support to facilitate their learning, on an equal basis with others,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Yet in Kazakhstan many children with disabilities remain on the margins of the education system, and of society as a whole.”

A special education teacher and a child with autism match squares at Balama Center, an organization that offers support to children with autism in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  © 2018 Timur Karpov

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 150 people for the report between September 2017 and December 2018. They included 49 children and young people with physical and intellectual disabilities, dozens of parents, and disability rights activists, human rights defenders, and international organizations. Human Rights Watch also met or corresponded with government officials and reviewed relevant national and international legislation.
First grade math class in a mainstream inclusive school in Almaty, Kazakhstan, includes at least one child with disabilities.

The majority of children with disabilities in Kazakhstan are excluded from mainstream schools, segregated into special schools or taught.

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A major barrier to inclusive education is the bodies known as Psychological-Medical-Pedagogical Consultations (PMPK), made up of doctors and education specialists. These bodies conduct a short evaluation of a child with a disability, and then issue a decision about what kind of school the child can attend. Although technically these bodies only make a recommendation about the child’s education path, parents told Human Rights Watch that their permission is required for enrollment in school. Some parents described the assessments of their children as rushed, hostile, and superficial.

Children who were interviewed described the isolation they experienced when they could not go to school. Misha, 13, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, is getting his education at home in a village outside of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. He said he dreams of going to school with other children: “I’d want to go to school, of course! It’s fun there. It’s way more interesting at school – you get to go to all the classes. There are a lot of kids! It’s better to study at school.”

In 2015, Kazakhstan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which guarantees the right to inclusive, quality education. This entails ensuring that children with and without disabilities learn together in mainstream classes in an inclusive environment, with reasonable accommodations. This can include braille textbooks, audio, video, and easy-to-read learning materials; instruction in sign language for children with hearing disabilities; and staff to assist children with self-care, behavior, or other support needed in the classroom.

The Kazakh government has pledged to make 70 percent of mainstream schools inclusive by 2019. In December 2018, Human Rights Watch visited several of these schools in Almaty.

Even in so-called inclusive schools, children with disabilities can face obstacles such as lack of physical accessibility, lack of accessible learning materials, and a lack of support staff. Kazakhstan’s inclusive schools currently only educate children with disabilities in lower grades, Human Rights Watch found.

Children who study in mainstream schools and their families described the importance of inclusive education to them. Malika’s nine-year-old son, Ilya, with Down’s syndrome “likes to study. He sees how others do something, and he does the same… He’s become more communicative because he’s in an environment where he hears speech. He’s learning social skills by imitating [others].”

The Kazakh government should expand its efforts to guarantee quality, inclusive education for children in Kazakhstan. As part of this effort, it should ensure that consultation bodies’ conclusions are not a prerequisite for enrollment in mainstream schools. Instead, the government, in consultation with people with disabilities, should reform the system to take in views and assessments from teachers, parents, and others, as well as doctors, to determine the support a child may need to study in a mainstream classroom.

“The Kazakh government should make sure it is including children with disabilities in mainstream schools and giving them the tools they need to succeed on an equal basis with other children,” Rittmann said. “The government can start by transforming the consultation body system so that it helps children to attend mainstream schools rather than blocking them.”

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