The involvement of blind and visually impaired teachers in the education system is necessary for the promotion of inclusion in this field of Uzbekistan. But have equal conditions and opportunities been created for them to carry out teaching activities like teachers without disabilities? Together with Dr Abdulla Abdukhalilov, an Associate Professor of Social Work at the National University of Uzbekistan and a Deputy Chairman on Strategic Planning at the Association of Disabled People Uzbekistan, we wrote a joint article at Gazeta.uz (in Russian/Uzbek) to analyse the problem based on the personal experience and successful cases of inclusion in pedagogy.
Recently, more and more attention has been paid to persons with disabilities, which is also proved by the entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Uzbekistan on July 28. From now on, the Convention obliges our state to create all the necessary conditions for persons with disabilities so that they could exercise all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others.
One of these rights is the right to engage in teaching activities, as enshrined in Article 44 of the Law “On Education”. Article 45 of this law also defines the status of teaching staff and guarantees the provision of their social support and the creation of organisational and legal conditions for the implementation of their professional activities.
After the introduction of an additional 2 per cent quota for admission to universities for persons with I and II disability group, starting from the 2018/2019 academic year, a significant increase in the number of certified specialists with disabilities in pedagogy is expected. But at the same time, due to the attitudinal and environmental barriers to their employment in educational institutions of different levels, the problem of ensuring their decent employment in the pedagogical sphere arises.
Admission to universities for blind and visually impaired applicants on preferential terms has been carried out for a long time, before the introduction of a 2 per cent quota, and is still regulated by a separate government decree. As a result, in quantitative terms, the number of people with higher education among the blind is much higher than among people with other forms of impairments. Unfortunately, after graduating from universities, blind graduates face barriers in finding work in their specialisation.
Let’s look at this issue by examining the existing organisational and legal conditions for blind teachers. Conventionally, we can separate blind teachers into three categories: those working in specialised boarding schools for children with visual impairments; those working in general education schools and those working in higher and secondary specialised educational institutions. Let’s consider these groups of specialists separately.
Pedagogical activity is one of the priority specialities for visually impaired persons. However, have all the necessary conditions been created for the realisation of their right to work at different levels of the national education system?
Special schools can’t recruit everyone!
Creating the necessary conditions for children and teaching staff in specialised boarding schools for blind children is already in the order of things. For the blind teachers, the boarding school assigns a secretary so that they can work effectively. In general, the atmosphere in these schools is the most favourable for blind teachers, because they are in their own environment, fenced off from society, full of negative stereotypes and prejudices about the working abilities of people with visual impairments.
It should be noted that many blind students graduating from pedagogical universities seek to find a job precisely in their special schools, where they themselves once studied because all the necessary conditions have been created for them there. Moreover, teachers from special boarding schools are provided with more significant social protection (e.g., better pay) in comparison with teachers from ordinary general education schools.
But special schools are not flexible and can’t employ all blind teachers! There are only 14 boarding schools for visually impaired and blind children operating throughout the republic, where more than 2830 children study and 823 teachers and 606 educators work. Considering that in Uzbekistan, according to the Society of the Blind, more than 66 thousand people with visual impairments are registered, it is simply impossible to employ all blind graduates of universities in specialised schools.
Currently, 26.8% of disabled children are enrolled in specialised schools and boarding schools. The Concept for the Development of Inclusive Education, adopted last year, envisages a gradual reduction in the number of children in boarding schools to 16% by 2025, with an increase in the proportion of disabled children enrolled in general secondary schools from the current 16.5% to 40% in 2025.
If a blind child enters a regular school, then all kinds of reasonable accommodation must be created for him in advance – educational materials in accessible formats (in Braille, large print or in audio format). Equally important is the availability of qualified teachers at the school who could provide individual support to a student with a visual impairment.
Blind teachers can become an important human resource for the development of inclusive education in Uzbekistan because they have not only specialised pedagogical skills (checking homework and tests performed in Braille or other formats), but also a life experience that they can share with visually impaired and blind students. In addition, if the necessary conditions are created for the blind teachers, then they can teach non-disabled children.
If special boarding schools cannot recruit all blind university graduates, they have no choice but to look for work in general schools. But most of the mainstream schools are afraid to take responsibility for employing disabled teachers because they did not have such experience before. Some even openly say that blind people should not work in educational institutions at all.
Currently, the Ministry of Public Education allocates “interpreter-secretaries” (in Uzbek “tarjimon-kotiba”) for blind teachers in accordance with paragraph 19 of the order of the Minister of Public Education No. 406 of December 28, 2019: “1.0 unit of interpreter-secretary is provided for two blind teachers. If the school employs one blind teacher, then 1.0 unit of interpreter-secretary is provided for him/her.”
Nevertheless, few people know about this order of the MPE, and it has some drawbacks. Firstly, the document does not specifically indicate for teachers with what disability group this service is available. For example, Madina Bollieva, a certified specialist of “Uzbek philology” who graduated with a PhD in literary studies from the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, has not been able to get an interpreter-secretary for a year and a half.
Secondly, the procedure and criteria for selecting interpreter-secretaries are not specified. There have been cases when some schools insisted that the interpreter-secretary had higher education. But what person with a higher education would agree to work as an interpreter-secretary with a meagre salary? Dildora Muslimova, a blind teacher of English with I disability group, who is finishing her master’s degree at the Uzbek State University of World Languages, got into such a situation.
“I work in a general secondary school №187 in Mirzo-Ulugbek district of Tashkent and teach Uzbek for Russian-speaking classes. The school director agreed to my written application for the provision of a interpter-secretary, and our request was sent to the financial department of the District Department of Public Education. They assigned me the staff of an interprter-secretary, but then they said that I did not fit the criteria of the Ministry’s decree because I was not totally blind, but visually impaired,” explains Madina Bollieva, a teacher with a visual impairment of II disability group.
Many blind teachers do not have the opportunity to independently choose their interpreter-secretaries based on their needs. Moreover, the very wording “tarjimon-kotiba” (“interpreter-secretary”) is embarrassing. It implies that only women can apply for this position. It is also unclear what kind of interpretation services the secretary provides because blind persons do not communicate in another language other than using tactile Braille for writing and reading.
“When I wanted to find a job in a general education school, there I was given a condition that my interpreter-secretary should also have a higher education with knowledge of English. But what person with a higher education would agree to work for an insignificant salary as an interpreter-secretary? I think no one will agree to work in such conditions. Under this pretext, the school refused to employ me,” says Dildora Muslimova about her negative experience.
Moreover, the name of the full-time position “interpreter-secretary” implies the limited nature of the services provided for reading and writing, while individual support of a blind teacher, it turns out, is not part of her duties. However, given the frequent lack of an accessible environment and reasonable accommodations in school buildings, this function should be provided for, otherwise, the necessary opportunities for the teacher’s work will not be created.
Requirements for interpreter-secretaries – explanations from the MPE
Upon our request to clarify the procedure for allocating interpreter-secretaries for blind teachers, the specialists of the Ministry of Public Education indicated that they are allocated by the district (city) financial departments on the basis of the recommendation (certificate) of the medical and labour expert commissions (VTEK) on the ability to carry out labour activities in accordance with the requirements to the content, volume, quality and conditions of work.
The Ministry of Public Education also noted that the position of “secretary of a blind specialist” (in Uzbek – “ko’zi ojiz mutahassis kotibi”) was introduced into the Classifier of key positions of employees and workers’ professions (HALIKK-2020) under serial number 5505. The classifier indicates that the position “secretary of a blind specialist ” should meet the requirements of technical staff.
In other words, since the normative legal documents of the Ministry of Public Education do not clearly define which group of persons with disabilities are provided with interpreter-secretaries, the basis for the provision of their services is the medical document provided by the VTEK.
According to the classifier, such employees must have an appropriate level of education according to code “4”: “initial vocational education and professional experience or secondary vocational education, or long-term vocational training courses in vocational training programs at educational institutions, or vocational training programs lasting at least 1 year passed validation “.
The recent order of the Minister of Public Education No. 206 of July 1 also approved the duties of the interpreter-secretary in the annex under paragraph 17. However, it does not provide for the provision of individual assistance for the movement of blind teachers inside and outside the school, as well as other duties usually performed by personal assistants in countries with developed social support for disabled people.
In this regard, the requirements of some schools that an interpreter-secretary of a blind teacher must necessarily have higher professional education are unfounded. According to the HALIKK-2020 classifier, persons with secondary vocational education or who have completed vocational training courses can also work as interpreter-secretaries.
Universities, colleges and lyceums remain closed
Unfortunately, even such an order which exists in the system of public education, is absent in the system of the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education: interpreters-secretaries are not allocated to blind teachers working in universities, colleges and lyceums. There is no legal framework governing the procedure for the provision of personal assistants to the teaching staff of higher and secondary specialised educational institutions.
According to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, refusal to provide reasonable accommodation is considered discrimination on the basis of disability. Thus, the right of teachers with visual impairments to engage in pedagogical activities in the system of the Ministry of Higher Education is violated.
The blind teachers of universities, colleges and lyceums can be counted on one hand, because the necessary working conditions have not been created for them. A small number of employed blind teachers have to pay the costs of personal assistants from their own salaries.
One of the examples of successful practice of providing reasonable accommodation to blind teachers is the recent decision of the leadership of the National University of Uzbekistan named after Mirzo Ulugbek to provide blind university teachers with a personal assistant of their choice. However, this practice is just a single case that depends on the goodwill of the university administration.
Systemic measures must be taken to prevent explicit discrimination against blind teachers and ensure their right to teach. Involvement of blind teachers in labour activity will serve as effective social protection of persons with visual impairments themselves, as well as the development of inclusive education, and the creation of an inclusive society in general.
How to include blind teachers in the education system?
Despite the fact that a significant number of visually impaired persons receive higher education, many of them cannot realiыe themselves in a professional capacity due to negative stereotypes about their potential and the lack of reasonable accommodation. The inaccessibility of educational institutions of different levels infringes upon the right of blind teachers to engage in teaching activities on an equal basis with non-disabled teachers.
This problem can be solved by introducing a personal assistant service not only for blind teachers but also for all visually impaired people. Therefore, it is necessary to change the narrow concept of “interpreter-secretaries” to personal assistants, since this concept will serve to expand their functional responsibilities and make such services available to all categories of blind and visually impaired citizens.
To do this, first of all, it is necessary to improve and develop a unified regulatory framework for the provision of personal assistant services not only for blind teachers but also for all visually impaired people based on their needs, in order to exercise their legal rights and freedoms. For example, the services of personal assistants are also needed by blind university students, who are currently not provided with similar social services.
Personal assistants should be provided to blind teachers regardless of the educational institution in which they work – be it preschool, school, secondary special or higher, as well as public or private educational institutions.
It is necessary to include in the Law “On the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” a definition of “reasonable accommodation” in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as definitions of “personal assistants” in the Law “On Social Services for the Elderly and Other Socially Vulnerable Categories of the Population”. It is also advisable to indicate in the laws and departmental regulations to which specific categories and groups of disabled people this service is provided and to what extent.
It is also necessary to include the services of personal assistants in the list of state services provided to people with visual impairments. It is also necessary to legislate the guaranteed minimum hours of services of personal assistants at the expense of the state budget with the possibility of choosing personal assistants from the existing database.
The creation of service of personal assistants under the Agency for the Development of Medical and Social Services under the Cabinet of Ministers would ensure proper control over the quality of services offered through proper training and retraining of personal assistants not only for the education sector but also for all other spheres of life of disabled people.