A Grand Challenge for Ukraine: Building an Inclusive Community

Left to right: Brian Abery, Renáta Tichá, Marta Sydoriv, and Sergiy Sydoriv. In 2018 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine.

A fully independent nation for less than 30 years, Ukraine in some ways is ahead of the United States when it comes to creating classrooms that are inclusive for students with disabilities. Europe’s second-largest country has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), for example, a step the United States has thus far not taken.

Hard-fought advances in inclusive U.S. practices, however—often driven from the ground up by educators and parents working to improve school life for their students—could be useful to the European nation as it grapples with implementing the mandates of the CRPD.

For more than six years, under several programs funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, the Institute on Community Integration has worked to leverage the best of both nations’ strengths in creating more inclusive schools. As part of the latest work, the Institute’s Global Disability Rights and Inclusion program area—led by co-directors Brian Abery (pictured at left in 2018 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) and Renáta Tichá (second from left)—is providing educators in both countries with key learning modules on developing inclusive policies, designing educational programs, transitioning students with disabilities from school to community life and jobs, and developing leaders who can ensure schools are truly inclusive for all students. Originally slated for completion this month, the work was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but is expected to be widely available this fall, including on ICI’s website.

The modules, to be offered in English and Ukrainian, build on earlier work for the Embassy that included publishing a handbook on inclusive education, train-the-trainer courses, lectures and mentoring. It also featured a grand challenge to a group of fellows to build a community of learning that would create a more inclusive educational system in Ukraine. The fellowship group originated in 2015 as part of a project marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, eight universities in Ukraine are jointly developing coursework on inclusive education for pre-service teachers of students with and without disabilities.

“It is not easy to have a unified curriculum, but we have established links within the universities, and many students participated in workshops and are equipped with the resources developed by the consortium,” said Sergiy Sydoriv (pictured at right), a professor at Ukraine’s National Precarpathian University. “We are still at the beginning of the process, but every year sees more of the students who previously participated in the project come to schools as teachers ready for making schools inclusive.”

Valentina Malanchii, a school principal in Khmelnytiskyi, Ukraine, who worked closely with ICI on the projects, said the number of students with special needs is growing rapidly and few secondary school teachers have had any previous coursework on teaching students with disabilities. “Our work is very important for the development of education in Ukraine,” she said. “Teachers need more than manuals, they need professional communication. Our Ministry of Education produces a great amount of documents in this field, but very often our teachers and school administrators do not know how to implement them in their daily work.”

Through social media communities, conferences, and trainings, ICI and its in-country partners have now built a network of resources for future teachers, she said.

“Our Facebook community became a strong tool for professional communication for pedagogical university students, as well as parents of children with disabilities and educators already in the field,” she said.

Both Abery and Tichá said they were struck by the enthusiasm and tenacity of the young professionals they worked with through the experiences.

“By the time this project ends, we will be learning from them because they will have created a more inclusive system for training educators than we have in the U.S.,” said Abery. “They are studying inclusion together and building relationships so they can understand children from the same perspective.”

Due to the pandemic, an August educators conference on inclusive education has been cancelled that was to have featured Malanchii and Sydoriv taking leadership on much of the presentations. Tichá said she is confident, nonetheless, that ICI’s partners in Ukraine are ready to continue and expand the work.

“We have reached a point where they have enough motivation and knowledge to move forward,” she said. “The younger generation we have been working with is ready for this challenge.”