2020-02-13
Local school officials and social workers of the Federated States of Micronesia meet with Check & Connect staff.

sus·​tained | \ sə-ˈstānd \

maintained at length…without weakening

Returning home after a six-week U.S. State Department fellowship to study techniques for making education more inclusive for people with disabilities, a group of seven Ukrainian professionals built a network of more than 2,000 educators, administrators, parents and people with disabilities that is lifting the visibility of the disability community in Ukraine.

In the Federated States of Micronesia, local school officials and social workers (pictured above with two ICI staff members) are learning how to connect with parents of students at risk of dropping out, adapting a popular U.S. intervention program called Check & Connect to their own culture.

An entrepreneurial tailor in Kenya is adding a new $75 sewing machine that will allow him to employ another worker with disabilities to create school uniforms, demonstrating the economic ripple effect of even small dollars invested in job-skills training.

Woven deep in a global tapestry of conflict, protectionism, and uneven funding in 2020 are threads of cultural understanding – fostered by ICI staff members and their international partners – that are sustaining progress in the quest for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in their communities.

Developing relationships that can carry work far beyond the initial scope of government or private grants is one way the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration is making sustainability happen, said Renáta Tichá, co-director of ICI’s Global Resource Center for Inclusive Education.

“Part of our responsibility in working at ICI is to support and build capacity for inclusion and participation, not just in the United States but all over the world,” Tichá said. “If you’re not building relationships, discovering unmet needs and developing creative and culturally appropriate means to meet them, you’re not fully utilizing your skills.”

Toward that end, and on several fronts, ICI is extending its international work beyond the scope of the original government grants it received.

Ukrainian professionals who, along with ICI staff members Brian Abery (right) and Renáta Tichá (third from right), helped lift the visibility of the disability community in Ukraine. Photographed in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

In Ukraine, for example, ICI partners (pictured at right with Tichá and Abery) are now creating the country’s first curriculum for pre-service teachers focused on supporting the inclusive education of students with disabilities. This follows several other initiatives with Ukrainian partners, including the 2017 fellowship program, which ICI administered with Arizona State University, that sparked the online inclusive education social media community.

“Since 2017, there have been great changes, but more are needed,” said Sergiy Sydoriv, an ICI partner and professor at Ukraine’s National Precarpathian University. “The ongoing cooperation, resource sharing, visits, and joint activities with our U.S. partners are necessary for profound, positive changes and students will benefit as they use and teach advocacy skills.”

Another relationship that has developed from those early days is with Valentina Malanchii, an assistant school principal in Khmelnytiskyi, Ukraine, who is gaining attention in her home country for her school’s progressive moves toward integrating students with disabilities more fully in mainstream classrooms.

“There have been great changes in our education system as a result of transformations that have taken place in Ukrainian society over the past generation, which means our educators have had to change their vision and methodologies for student education very rapidly,” Malanchii said. “Our partnership with ICI helps our educators find new approaches to teaching students, especially those with special education needs.”

It’s important to note these initiatives aren’t a one-way street, said Brian Abery, co-director of the Center.

“We’re learning a lot from our international colleagues, who are getting amazing things done with very little funding,” he said, citing a small grant ICI helped a Ukrainian organization secure that resulted in multiple in-service trainings on strategies to promote inclusive education and a three-day conference attended by more than 100 participants.

“Sometimes organizations try to make international connections at too high a level and it ends up being nothing more than an expensive trip,” he said. “We work at a level of connection and passion for what we’re doing, and relationships naturally develop. That leads to the social capital that’s needed to really take the work beyond a grant and build it into the fabric of a community.”

The Center has also laid foundational work in Russia, Bhutan and India in recent years, and has introduced several U.S. collaborators – including local disability consultants and educators – to international representatives of inclusion.

“We’re trying to make these efforts broader than ICI, and to facilitate connections between our schools, state departments, and those outside the United States,” said Abery.

Meanwhile, in Micronesia, team members from ICI’s long-running, evidence-based school dropout prevention program, Check & Connect, adapted its training to fit the data and access needs of schools there. After an in-country visit last summer, ICI is providing ongoing support via regular online meetings.

“The basic mentoring principles of the program are the same, in terms of building relationships with students and connecting with parents,” said Eileen Klemm, C&C program manager. “How they present and access the data and simply how they do business in the schools is very different than in the U.S., and some of the communication issues are challenging.”

The C&C model is also in use in Toronto and Quebec, Canada; East London, South Africa; Sydney, Australia; and New Zealand.

“The sustainability of our work in general is why we initiated external sales of some of our training products, so that individual sites aren’t limited to accessing Check & Connect through one of our grants,” said Klemm. “Because of our investment in creating these products, we can provide materials and training services that extend the original work.”

One example: Nearly three years after providing training for a youth organization in South Africa, ICI is now in discussions to return to provide “train the coach” sessions.

“Our colleague Jana Ferguson has continued that relationship and now they are ready to bring new mentors into their organization, which is why we’ve developed a ‘train the coach’ model so we can help them build their own capacity to take this program into the future,” Klemm said.

And in Africa, ICI is partnering with local organizations to provide competency-based training for direct support professionals serving people with disabilities, in addition to supporting microbusinesses directly, such as the tailoring shop that promotes inclusive disability employment in Kenya.

“In order to make a greater impact and connect with the population we really want to support, we are working with community-based organizations to fill in the training gaps,” said ICI’s Macdonald Metzger. “It’s more economical for us and for them.”

The Washington Post motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” argues that freedom requires open public discourse and enlightenment.

Something similar, perhaps, can be said for global inclusion for people with disabilities: To survive, it must be shared.