Just Like You: 5 principles of inclusive society

The first positive inclusive changes have already been adopted in Ukrainian law. But society’s support and participation are needed to ensure they are implemented and expanded. What kind of participation do we mean? In the first part of this entry, we talk to the founder of the “See with the Heart” NGO Olesya Yaskevych. In the second part, we meet entrepreneur, athlete, activist and director of the Active Rehabilitation Group Vitalii Pcholkin.

Just Like You is a joint project of Real Stories Production and the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

  • Since 2010, the legislative framework has been adopted to support inclusive education in Ukraine;
  • In 2019, outdated psycho-medical and education counselling centres around the country have begun to be transformed into modern inclusive resource centres that support children with special education needs;
  • Approximately 17,000 children with special educational needs are already enrolled in Ukrainian schools.

“There are four stages of social development: exclusion, segregation, integration, and inclusion. Segregation is when we are smart and healthy, and somewhere far away: ‘they’ live in boarding homes. Integration is about respect for the human right to equal access to quality education. Inclusion is the commitment of society to adapt to the individual needs of people rather than vice versa.

We talk a lot about inclusion, but I believe that our society has just started to move from segregation to integration,” Olesya Yaskevych.

Olesya Yaskevich is an educator, the mother of Matvii, and founder of the  NGO “See with the Heart.” The NGO runs projects such as Space Camp, an inclusive arts centre and a creative workshop for young people with complex  disabilities, as well as courses, workshops and lectures for parents, teachers, students, businesses and those who are ready to learn to see with the heart.

The See with the Heart project is not about rehabilitation and treatment, but about support, communication, and socialization. My team and I are learning a lot as we explore the experience of the United States, Poland and Germany. We take their most salient techniques and ideas and adapt them to our context and objectives.

Our goal is to build an open inclusive society in Ukraine. To do this, we are running a wealth of our own projects, based on five basic principles. We dream of making our activities unnecessary, which will happen when most Ukrainians are aware of and accept the following principles:

Everyone is a person

This is logical, but when it comes to persons with disabilities, it is often overlooked. For example, people talk about them in the third person when they are around; or they buy a Peppa Pig backpack for a 13-year-old, arguing that “she doesn’t understand anything in any case.” Maybe she doesn’t, but such actions shape our attitude towards the child, and display a lack of respect.

The childhood has no disabilities. All children – even those with the most complex diagnosis – need socialization, communication, learning, friendship and new experiences

All children love games, competitions, workshops and dancing. But there are almost no educational and entertainment facilities for children – especially adolescents – with complex disorders. Three years ago, we conducted a summer Space Camp for children with and without any diagnosis. The camp was attended by children who had never been in the company of their peers before, and we showed them and their parents how to live differently. Of course, we did not want to let teenagers go back to their lives under lock and key for 11 months again. That is why we developed an inclusive art studio programme, and received a grant from Courage Bazaar for it.

At Open4U Centre, we conduct ethics and cookery classes, read poems, dance, draw and invite professionals from various fields to host various workshops – from drumming to photography.

What is the point of such classes? All the children have their own opinions.

Sixteen-year-old Olena cannot speak, move or see, and she has epilepsy. She has not gone to school or attended other group classes. At first, she found it very difficult at the camp, as we have a tight schedule, and something is always happening. She was nervous, she started biting her hand and screaming. But then gradually she became more involved in the process. Now Olena dances to Monatic and smiles happily when she hears the voice of Mykyta, a boy she likes.

Twelve-year-old Andrew cannot speak, he has been diagnosed with autism. For the first six months, the boy refused to join classes at the art centre. He just stood at the door, shouting and beating himself from time to time. Now he sits down with everyone in the circle and shows a ‘yes’ card when asked “Did you enjoy your day today?” And his mum says that she can finally go outside with her son.

Of course, these results may not seem significant, but for these children and their families, they are enormous.

Every person is interesting. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is important to let yourself be yourself. Let others be themselves. Respect others’ choices and boundaries. Remember that everyone has the right to develop, work, and have as meaningful a life as possible.

My son Matvii is blind, he has epilepsy and autism. No school or care centre is ready to enrol him with such a complex diagnosis. There is nowhere for him to study, play, hang out or work. Matvii is home schooled; a teacher comes to him, but his studies are very basic. And of course, he visits the camp and art therapy centre. What will he face in modern Ukraine after he completes Grade 9? The end of his social life. In general, there is nothing but a mental clinic. And in the clinics, such patients are injected with sedatives, and die by the age of 30 .

We are not OK with this scenario, so we are developing our own workshop and training platform for formal employment for young people aged 18 and older. The project is called Creative Workshop YES.

Creative manufacturing for persons with disabilities is a popular practice abroad. We work with a group of students, discover everyone’s individual capacity and produce goods. The boys and girls make soap, candles, and home decorations. It is important to us that these are stylish things that people buy because of their cool design and quality, rather than because they feel sorry for the children.

We are also helping several students to prepare employment. This is a complicated process that requires cooperation from the young people, parents, mentors and businesses. We had experience with a community institution where a group of four students completed six months of studies. A mentor helped them complete internships, and the director of the institution was very happy with the team’s work, because they were super responsible and diligent. But when it came to formal employment, the parents did not agree. In particular, because you need to bring a work record book to your new employer, and this book is registered with another company where the child receives a minimum wage but does not really work. That is because by employing a person with disabilities, businesses pay less taxes. The law is good, but in practice it works just as a ‘tick-box exercise’ and does not contribute to socialization.

But we did not give up this idea and now we are working with a new group of young people, discovering their strengths, looking for a suitable employer, and fully preparing both students and future colleagues to work together.   

The first three years of life are crucial for every child. And young parents of children with disabilities are particularly in need of professional support and advice

When Matvii was born, I was initially advised to renounce the child. Then the Ukrainian Association of the Blind told me to bring him to them when he is 18.

I was ready to sell the kidneys of the whole family to get money to treat him. I did not know what I should treat him for, but I constantly needed medical care for my son. However, I understand now that it would have been worth spending the time, energy and money on other things.

To prevent other parents raising children with visual impairments from repeating my mistakes, together with Kharkiv’s “Right of Choice” NGO we organize annual 10-day intensive Mama’s School sessions. We invite fantastic specialists from Russia, Germany and Poland [KM1] and explain how to live with such diagnoses. We had a story in which a mother was going to place her son in a boarding school because he had visual impairments, intellectual disabilities and autism, and she did not understand how to communicate with him. We developed a daily routine for them, showed different techniques and the mother decided not to place her son anywhere, because she understood how to communicate with him.

We should critically evaluate the society in which we live. It is not enough to draft a law on inclusive education; it is necessary to raise the awareness of teachers, students and parents. To produce cool social advertising, root out stereotypes and promote tolerance.

Indeed, more and more schools in Ukraine are opening inclusive classes. The Maryna Poroshenko Foundation has been working on this project and – I believe – they drafted a good law, but parents are keep uniting and protesting against children with disabilities in their classes. There is the law, but the schools are not ready. Teachers, children, parents and society in general are not ready.

Ukrainians are very tolerant. I believe that we have a ‘Soviet gene’ that ‘requests’ that everyone should be healthy, intelligent, answer questions correctly and walk in the same clothes. Our team is trying to eradicate this gene.

We have developed a series of interactive hands-on lessons for teachers and students of different age groups. This is called It is important.

The materials can be adapted for both first-graders and university students. It’s not just lectures; there are lots of games, videos and projects to do with your own hands, like writing your name in Braille. In this way, we teach healthy children to communicate with children who cannot see or hear, and explain why bullying is not OK, and musculoskeletal disorders are not an obstacle to friendship. All teachers can get the materials for free, they just have to contact our project on Facebook and conduct lessons for their classes.

Also, as a guest lecturer, I run classes for businesses that seek to be inclusive. I teach bank and restaurant staff to properly help any client, regardless of his or her diagnosis. When we explain how to accompany a person in a wheelchair, we suggest that some members of the group sit in the wheelchair. Very often, they categorically refuse. They say, “If I sit in a wheelchair right now, I won’t be able to walk tomorrow.” At times, these are people with higher education, mid and top managers. Such stereotypes are too deeply rooted in our society. But “we are all only one accident from a disability.”

We recently partnered with the international BestBuddies project. This is a volunteer movement already operating on six continents in 53 countries. The idea is that everyone should have a buddy. Not mum, not family members, doctors or teachers, but a friend you can go for a walk with and tell a secret. A person who will help with your studies and give good advice relating to your job. Somone you can always call, even for no reason. The project helps find friends like this for people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities. So, if you feel you want to and can become a buddy for someone, write to us here.