Last year I met with representatives of Save the Children Norway in Russia. During dinner we talked about the education system in Russia’s regions and politically correct terms in the Russian language to describe children with disabilities. These are terms which should be used instead of the unpleasant and, sadly, very commonly used term ‘child-invalid’. According to my colleague, politically correct language used to describe disability is still a novelty to many teachers in the country and is largely unknown to the general public. What struck me then was her negative and rather shocking remark that “we are only interested in the best pupils in our country”. Having been educated in post-Soviet Lithuania, I can relate to this myself - there were no students with disabilities in our class or, for that matter, the rest of the school, and I still remember very well that teachers resisted the idea of inclusive education, because involving children with even minor learning difficulties in the process would just “drag the best students down”.
The issues affecting abandoned children with disabilities is constantly discussed in the media, but debate usually focuses on poverty, with scant attention paid to the issue in the context of other social groups, especially other groups of children. One of the particularly neglected angles is the worship of “talented” children in post-Soviet states alongside denial of the disabled. Why is this culture so deeply rooted?
Gifted children - ‘our future’
We are all familiar with talent shows such as ‘X Factor’ or a specific country’s version of ‘Got talent’. These shows are highly popular in the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, however a lot of time and effort is invested in seeking out the most gifted children not through talent shows, but in the education system. Skills in areas such as technology, languages, sports, or even better - all these fields - are highly valued and children who do remarkably well at school are given different grants to raise and fulfill their potential - you guessed it - ‘for the future benefit of the state’.
Back in 1996, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev issued a decree “On state support and the development of schools for gifted children" with the purpose of developing a strategy to support gifted children and youth. Governmental attention to gifted children is justified by the fact that “in comparison to their peers, gifted children with their high energy levels and prompt intellectual initiative, can make a great contribution to science and technology, information and cultural development of the country”. Incredibly rich with oil reserves, as well as minerals and metals, Kazakhstan has been a growing economy for the last 15 years. It makes sense that the country needs its future generation to be extremely talented, as the aim of the President is no less than to get Kazakhstan into the World’s Top 50 most developed countries list.
Efforts to find potential geniuses are very well documented and easily obtainable. The online Encyclopedia entitled “Gifted children - future of Kazakhstan” provides stories of talented children, the best teachers and leading centres of education in the country. Under the section ‘Hopes of Kazakhstan’, we find stories of remarkable children. For example, Katya E. from Almaty, “until 7th grade was actively engaged in mathematics and participated in local and regional competitions and in 8th grade became interested in journalism”. She is now participating in competitions for young journalists and was won multiple awards. “Katya has also won competitions for research projects in mathematics and for young journalists writing in the English language”. She also writes poetry, plays basketball and attends dance classes.
Achievements of children and teenagers like Katya are indeed something to be proud of. Such an online Encyclopedia is not a single country project, though. Similar versions of the Encyclopedia can be found in other post-Soviet countries: “Gifted children - future of Russia” (Russians, in fact, pioneered such an Encyclopedia in 2006), “Best people of Ukraine”, “Best people of Belarus”, research journal “Child Prodigy” (Russia), etc. In Ukraine there is an “Institute for Gifted Child”, a body that develops different strategies for discovering talented children at secondary schools.
It is true, gifted children are viewed as exceptional human capital and possible drivers of global economic competitiveness in many countries. However, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia a lot of work needs to be done, bearing in mind that the Soviet legacy persists in many countries 20 years after independence. Issues such as corruption in the judiciary, police, customs and at other government levels, poor infrastructure, environmental pollution, and socially excluded and marginalised populations still prevail. It is a heavy burden to carry if you happen to fall into the category of the 'talented future’ of the country.
Psychologists argue that systems that seek out gifted children are generally flawed and can be damaging to both these children and children in general. “A child develops an impression that he or she is valued just because they have talent, but not for who they are as a person”, says Maria Tevosyan, a psychologist from the Armenian Psychoanalytical Association. Growing up with such a perception of oneself can lead to a less developed ability to cope with other people’s successes in the future.
Others think that the low standard of teaching in public schools, namely the inability of teachers to convey the subject, results in the separation of children into ‘talented’ and ‘untalented’. “In practice, teachers choose two or three children and work hard with them to ensure that they are defending the honour of the school in various competitions, so to speak for the prestige of schools”, as noted in a comment on a video about talented children in Kazakhstan. At the same time, many students are damaged by the cult of the ‘genius’. That cult tells students that it's not worth doing the subject unless you're the best at it - because those special few are the only ones whose contributions really count.
The overarching problem is that talented children (and children in general) are viewed by governments as "the future", but not as individuals with rights. This is not a healthy attitude, because all children have their human rights, not because they are "the adults of tomorrow", but because they are human beings today.
Children with disabilities - a forgotten group
In 2011, Kazakhstan introduced electronic equipment in 44 out of 115 schools for gifted children, and last year Lego classes were included in the curriculum of these schools. And yet, special equipment for schools for children with disabilities is not regarded as a necessity where even basic equipment is often lacking.
There is a huge divide between how children with disabilities and other children, especially those categorised as ‘gifted’, are perceived in Eastern Europe and Central Asian society. The first group are often perceived as a ‘useless burden’, rather than the ‘future’ - both attitudes, however, are biased and profoundly wrong. They may well be attributed to the Soviet mentality, when children or adults with disabilities were pretty much excluded from society. In 1980, for example, the Soviet Union refused to organise Paralympics, claiming there were no people with disabilities in the country.
There is a long way to go before these deeply rooted attitudes can be overturned. Language used in everyday public life is still a problem, for example the most commonly used word to describe a child with a disability is ‘child-invalid’, ‘child with impairment’, ‘defective child’, although other more politically correct versions are now being used in the media and among NGOs.
In the decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the State Program of Education Development in the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2011-2020”, specialised education schools for children are still referred to as ‘correctional’, and inclusive education, which takes into consideration the needs and wishes of children with disabilities, exists more in theory than in practice. In Armenia, for example, funding is much more generous for schools where there is a child with a disability in the class, therefore many schools agree to involve children with special educational needs primarily on financial rather than ideological grounds and receive the status of an inclusive school. Furthermore, politicians and government officials who are responsible for introducing human rights language make matters worse: last year on Human Rights Day, Kazakhstan’s President's daughter, an MP in the Parliament, referred to children with disabilities as 'freaks' and invited young people to visit correctional facilities to “see the results of a premature sex life”.
Similar attitudes persist across countries in the region. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan says on its website that the Government has taken important steps to protect talented children in the country by adopting several State Programmes, however in regards to children with disabilities, NGOs do most of the work. Going back to the issue of problematic language, the website also claims that rehabilitation services are provided to children with disabilities, among which “puppet show by downs and autists can be distinguished.” [sic]
Not many parents have the courage to bring up a child born with some form of disability, particularly more serious ones like Down's syndrome or cerebral palsy, and orphanages are still overcrowded with abandoned children, while the government is not willing to give any significant support to struggling parents or carers.
The list of issues could be endless, but it is also worth stating that there has been a lot of improvement in the last two decades. Azerbaijan’s National Paralympic Committee last year launched the world's first Children’s Paralympic Committee. Orphanage deinstitutionalisation programmes are in progress across the region, with children being transferred to foster families and home-type care. And more and more activists are using non-conventional advocacy methods to protect and defend children's rights, such as legal advocacy and strategic litigation.
Rights are for all
Geniuses aren't going to solve all the puzzles that governments set them. It is true, many talented children become highly successful adults - but most highly successful people weren't child geniuses. Many prominent people in the world didn't shine in Physics Olympiad, didn't go to elite schools, many of them actually dropped out of universities. How many failed actors or musicians have become Presidents?
How a society views children’s civil and political rights is generally a good gauge of how that society views children in general - as rights holders or merely an extension of their parents. And indeed, this is something that Eastern Europe and Central Asian countries struggle a lot with - children’s rights to be heard, freedom of expression and ability to protest are largely denied across the region. Furthermore - in many countries adults cannot enjoy their human rights and freedoms fully, with these being usurped by repressive governments.
However, equality can only be sustainable in a free and open society, where human rights are respected and dissent, as long as its expression does no harm to others, is not quashed. The attitude towards children as "the future" or objects of pity has to change, because human rights extend to all people, irrespective of age, disability or talent, and are enshrined in a range of international human rights treaties. Only when these basic principles are followed, is there a chance to narrow down the gap between those considered ‘able’ and ‘disabled’, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, ‘useful’ and ‘useless’.