Equal access to educational opportunities

It’s the second year that the Inclusive Education Center –  Education for All – has been working on NU campus. During this period, participants of the center have become well known across Astana and beyond. In addition to educational services, the center has also staged several plays and musicals as “Inclusive Theater”. Today we talk to Kamila Rolan, the founder who came up with the concept and ideology for the center after graduating from NU’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Graduate School of Education.

Kamila, could you please tell more about the history of the center? How has it started?

– Today, in Kazakhstan there are many children with special needs, only a portion of them – 70 000 – have actually been registered with disability status. Of these children, only 20% are enrolled at schools.  Most of these children are home-schooled, which limits their ability to develop communication skills, make friends, and receive a competitive education.

In 2012, when I was a volunteer of the Red Crescent Society of Kazakhstan, I was involved in an educational project for children from low-income families and migrants. After four years of running this project I decided to apply to a Master’s program in the field of inclusive education.  My MA program allowed me to not only realize the whole range of problems and barriers to implementing an inclusive educational model, but also obtain the skills necessary for overcoming these barriers. I thought that it would likely be easier in the non-governmental sector to implement these new models for Kazakhstan. Thus, I decided to found –Education For All (EFA) –  as a public organization.

In the EFA, together with our team, we launched an inclusive education center. This is a place where children from ordinary schools and children with special needs can study together.  They study academic subjects, sports, creative disciplines, and courses on professional orientation.

At the start of the project our groups were small, and to be frank even now we still have difficulties in attracting more students. We have children with a variety of backgrounds including those with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, hyperactive children, gifted children, and children from low-income families. At times it can be hard for parents to understand the variety of children with different needs our center serves, and this can be stressful and frightening for some parents. We had a case when a family left after a parent saw a special child in the group with his kid, but for the most part there are more parents who appreciate the diversity and those who liked our approach. In general, we maintain close contact with the parents of our students.

What would be the main difficulties in your work?

– Probably our inexperience, especially in financial and legal issues. I also at times feel a lack of knowledge in some areas related to the business of public and socially-minded organizations.  A lot of my time is spent solving these difficulties and engaged in fundraising.  This means that I cannot fully focus on the primary mission which is direct work with children.  Because we are a social business, there are limitations on what the center can earn.  Additionally, I currently volunteer my time as unpaid at the center and still have to balance working elsewhere, which means I basically work 24/7.  

Academic courses in our center are offered for a fee, but only for those who can afford to pay it. A portion of the income we earn is earmarked as a scholarship fund for children from vulnerable families, so that they can study at our center for free.   We also provide free vocational guidance courses and our Inclusive Theater. Additionally, one of our NU alumni who now works in a private company, has helped get the company to support us by making some donations every month.

You are doing such a difficult, but incredibly noble cause! What does inspire you in your work?

– Our goal inspires me – striving for a society where all people can be equal members and get equal access to the opportunities. In addition to that, my team and our students inspire me very much. This is more than just a job or a hobby – this is the philosophy of my life, my values. There was a case where I and my team were speaking at a press conference, and the mother of one of our students, who had been sitting in the hall with us, started crying, listening to the answers that we had been giving to the journalists’ questions. She cried from the fact that she for once was understood and accepted, and we looked at her child as at a person with great potential, not a patient or an individual with learning difficulties and limitations. My heart sank at that time: that her family’s situation was misunderstood for so long and that she had to live in an unfair system.  The right to study at school should be a constitutional right, and something that is taken for granted. And I want to further contribute to making educational access more inclusive for all.