What are the origins of the school?
It originated 40 years ago, first as a psychology office for children with down syndrome. In 1982 it became a school and in 1992 it became a private school. The school has three levels: initial, primary, and post primary. In 2002 they developed a plan for job training. The post primary level has the modality of labor training in the form of an internship as part of the pedagogical, labor, and social training.
Can you tell us about the mission and vision of the school?
The mission of the school is that each child, each young person, achieves the greatest possible autonomy and independence. When they arrive at job training and internships, the most essential thing is that they are not their disability first, that they are first a person who is capable of doing the same work as any other person.
How many students are there and how old are they?
There are 72 in primary and another 72 in post-primary. The youngest are 3-4 years old but there are also young people who started here at 2-3 years old before it was a school and now they are 40 years old. They came back here when it became a school. What characterizes special schools and sets them apart from the common schools is that the enrollment is open all year. There are kids who can’t start in March, but registration is open all year. Not all kids have to start in the initial level to move to the higher levels.
Acuarela students doing their practices in Fundación Espacios Verdes
What are the greatest challenges these children face?
The younger children generally face family challenges. They have no experience with schools for disability and it is difficult to deal with such visible disability, because it is not so visible in common schools. Many parents are reluctant to send their children to a special school because they want to hold on to the hope that their child can still be “normal.” Another challenge is that everyone else makes their decisions for them, their doctors, their parents. They have to learn that they can decide for themselves and that they are able to learn. And so, we must accompany them in all their learning. With the older ones, they face the challenges of having a boyfriend or girlfriend, living alone, and health concerns, so they have to be accompanied in their life situation. A great challenge in job training is the work context. They can work as well as any other, they have no physical impediments, but there is a lot of discrimination.
What do you think are the greatest benefits of this type of education?
The biggest benefit is that they learn to work in a real workspace. You see how they grow and there are a lot of achievements. We are not part of their family, but we are a second family. We know each other from when they are small until they live alone with their boyfriend or girlfriend. There are students who are older than us, the teachers. What they learn is for life and prepares them for an autonomous life.
On the issue of inclusion and integration, what are your recommendations for the education system in terms of special education?
We are an open door school. We are constantly questioning and reviewing our practices to make sure that we teach the kids still applies. We want what they learn to serve them. We are under review all the time; what we do, how we do it, why we do it, for whom we do it, is it useful, is it not useful, who does it serve, etc. Something we question a lot is whether we should be classified as a special school because each school has something special. Better to be a school specialized in something. We never have our place in the education system, but it is a very important place. There is talk of inclusion and integration, that we all have rights and all are equal, but some places are more suitable than others for each person to learn. Schools are very lacking with respect to making room for disability. They can learn from the specific modalities of special schools. Not everyone learns in the same way.
Apart from schools, society is missing a lot. When we go out with the students to internships, we go out to the street to learn how to buy, go on the bus, the subway. There is a lot of learning for everyday life. There are many people today who want to help and they speak to them as if they were deaf, dumb, with infantilizing words. They are not deaf or dumb and they use the same words as you and I. When we go out with these young people, people talk about what good people they are, what a good job they do. They think they are being friendly and giving a compliment, but they are discriminating. These interactions set us back every time. There are people who laugh, who turns their faces, and the kids realize this, and it’s really not good. We have to talk a lot about this and tell them that they shouldn’t trust everyone, that not all people are good.
In addition to the businesses you work with for internships, do you ever work with common schools?
Sometimes we share with common schools so that children can get to know each other and to mitigate the fear that many people have of disability. There is the idea that people with disabilities are crazy and that they are not true adults. They are always children in the eyes of others. These things are rarely said out loud, but what is not said is internalized and appears nevertheless. These ideas come from fear of what we do not understand. We are afraid because we don’t know what to do, what to say, and we don’t talk about this. That is why it is very important to have listening spaces where you can share what we feel and what we are afraid of. The common schools fall short by not speaking and there is a lot of damage. Not talking about what happens is really violent and harmful. Not to mention, they are not prepared to receive kids with disabilities.
Our students realize in a second if you reject them or not. They realize when people are not comfortable around them. Teenagers in the common schools are always surprised to find they have more points in common than different. You need to respect the differences, you don’t have to do everything together, but you also have to respect the skills that everyone has. It is very easy to take the position that they cannot learn. But they can learn. People say “he does not want to learn.” Well, what are you doing so that he can learn? Do you want him to learn? And this is not a problem specific to special schools, it also happens in common schools. There are always those who are left behind and need additional help. Learning itself is a problem.
What strategies do you use to address this learning problem in your school?
Each of us learns differently. For these kids, if it is taught well, they learn it well. If it is taught badly, they learn it badly. Many do not have the flexibility to learn and unlearn. Sometimes it seems that they’ve hit a ceiling and can’t learn any more, but they can always improve. If they learned something badly, it is very difficult to start again from scratch. They have different rates of processing and understanding. We must take advantage of the fundamental learning windows they have and do each teaching step by step, seeing it again in a different way. Sometimes they stay on a plateau for a while and it seems like nothing is sticking, and then suddenly one day they know everything and are capable of everything.
How are internships organized?
We have a work profile plan that depends on the possibilities of the market. The four main areas are maintenance, artisanal production, gastronomy, and administrative work. The most important thing is for them to learn to work with what they like, what they can do, and what they have to do. They have to understand that sometimes the work you have to do is not the work you want to do. Every young person has a talent and you have to discover that. When it comes to getting a job, there are many closed doors for these kids. But we always find a way to get a job that they are good at and that they like. For example, if a young person wants to be a scientist, this door is not going to be open. But maybe they can find work as a laboratory assistant. There are always options that can be made to be autonomous.
Carly Bell, FEV volunteer (Connect-123)