2 May 2013

Inclusive education in Albania: “it takes an effort, it does”

“This one’s autistic, she is Downs, and this one is autistic too”, said the lady, pointing in turn to three girls who were sat around a table holding coloured pens. “What are the girls’ names?” I replied.

Child Development Centre "Doves", in Tirana

Some of the boys in Doves learn how to burn pieces of wood

A bedroom in Doves

Alma Kapidanja, the only social worker in Doves

I was visiting the Child Development Centre, known locally as “Doves”, a state-run facility in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Doves caters for children with intellectual disabilities and the youngest client is seven. But many of its residents are adults, some over thirty years old. “We fill the need”, explained Alma Kapidanja, the only social worker in Doves which looks after thirty clients. Their families take the clients to Doves each Monday morning and pick them up on Friday evenings. Some people have been at Doves for several years. In 2009 the American Embassy sent Easter baskets to Doves, and “the children sang songs along with big smiles and some hugs”. Bless.

The physical conditions have improved marginally over the last twenty years, but the main problem is that “the government doesn’t provide any community services,” explained Alma. The state gives parents of children with disabilities the equivalent of 70 Euro per month as a disability payment. In rural areas of high unemployment that money boosts the family income significantly, but in the towns it is little help.

Doves occupies a two-storey building. Small therapy rooms and a dining room are on the ground floor. One boy is in the fitness room, pedalling slowly on a decrepit exercise bike donated years ago. In another room girls do knitting, of sorts. In another, boys use an electrical contraption with which they burn black lines into pieces of wood to create a picture. I winced at how the daily lives of these children were condensed into a gendered and disablist routine, anathema to education which is supposed to expose children to diversity, provide them with some skills, and set them free.

Looking inside one of the therapy rooms at Doves

Oliver sits on a bench in the garden of Doves


An amalgam of rights violations

The youngsters in Doves have no access to medical or dental care. “Dentists don’t like to treat them,” explained Alma, before telling me how a dentist had once said to her that people with intellectual disabilities have a different immune system which makes dental treatment impossible.

It came as no surprise to learn that children without disabilities in the nearby orphanage do get free medical and dental care. This is disability-based discrimination: abhorrent and unlawful. Working in human rights sector, I hear a lot of strange things but it makes me especially angry when medically-qualified personnel try to justify their own shameful practices by creating clinical lies.


Out of school, out of luck

There are around 18,000 children with disabilities in Albania. Just over 2,000 of them are in mainstream education and just over 700 in special schools. That leaves around 15,300 children with disabilities excluded from any education whatsoever. (Full references to these figures are provided at the end of this piece).

In February this year, Albania ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24 of the Convention sets out each child’s right to inclusive education. This means that the Albania is under a duty in international law to change include children with disabilities into inclusive education. Not only is the exclusion unlawful: it makes no economic sense either, given that Albania’s 2.8 million people are among the poorest in Europe.


Help the Life

Aferdita Seiti is a mother of an adult woman with intellectual disabilities. “It’s my dream to see my daughter with her non-disabled peers”, she said while showing me around the day-care centre in Tirana’s suburbs which she and other parents opened three years ago. Their NGO is called “Help the Life”, a dramatically-named organisation which takes a sharp line on fighting segregation, and advocating for inclusion.

37 clients with disabilities were attending the day-care centre on the day I visited. Many have autism, some have Down syndrome, and others have various other intellectual disabilities. Some have physical disabilities too and unlike elsewhere in Tirana, the day-care centre is completely accessible for wheelchair users. Like Doves, Help the Life fills the lacuna of adult support services: several of its clients are over 30 years old. Families pay around 200 Euro per month to the day-care centre, which in turn employs specialised staff who provide education and therapy clearly superior than anything at Doves. This model works for the time being, but Aferdita insists it is a temporary solution until inclusive education becomes a reality.

The day-care centre in the suburbs of Tirana, run by the NGO Help the Life

Oliver, Aferdita Seiti, and MDAC colleague Lajos Labossa outside the day-care centre


Why are kids excluded?

Big charities like Save the Children have tried to include children with disabilities into mainstream education in Albania with some success. The confused 2012 Law on Pre-University Education adopts a special and medical (rather than inclusive and supports-based) approach to education. Disappointingly, it does not set out a right to inclusive education. While it prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and sets out integration into kindergartens and ordinary schools as a “priority”, the main message is that “disabled students shall stay in specialised schools up to the age of 19 years old.”

Schools still reject children on the basis of their disability, there are low rates of enrolment and high drop-out rates for students with disabilities. A statutory basis for demanding inclusion would be helpful, but a better law will not solve the problem by itself. There need to be trained educators, proper curricula, more teaching assistants, better infrastructure and some accessible transportation to get a child to school and back again each day.

So, the impact of well-meaning NGO projects is patchy and short-term because the government does not scale up the initiatives. This renders inclusion unsustainable, and makes it dangerously easy for the authorities and the public alike to claim that inclusive education does not work in Albania. Children with disabilities are not alone in facing discrimination: 54% of school-age Roma kids are out of school, according to Save the Children. An intersectional approach to including children is therefore needed.

On the way back from visiting the NGO Help the Life

A small mosque sits behind a pile of rubbish


The EU can support NGOs

The EU’s Disability Strategy 2010-2020 commits the Commission to raise awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ensure that potential candidate countries like Albania make progress in promoting the rights of people with disabilities. The EU is doing just that. Its 2012 report on Albania notes the “limited progress” in policies for people with disabilities citing the recent law reform and noting that “many children with disabilities have not been integrated into the public education system.” More of this

Albania will hold a general election this coming June. The EU should then step in and support civil society to monitor how the new government makes progress on implementing the UN Convention. NGOs need to start play a hard-edged watchdog role, filing cases to the Commissioner for Prevention of Discrimination, and the European Court of Human Rights targeting gaps in implementation.


Take the effort

With strong advocacy, non-disabled Albanians will have the opportunity to befriend disabled people like Aferdita’s daughter. The children and young people in Doves will go to mainstream schools with the supports they need to be included. Instead of being introduced by their diagnostic labels, the three girls will introduce themselves by their names, their favourite colours and TV shows, their plans, their hopes, their dreams.

The Doves institution has an English rock band namesake. In one of their songs they sing, “My God it takes an ocean of trust, it takes an effort, it does”. Inclusive education takes some trust: a trust in inclusion being the right approach. It takes an effort too. Albanian politicians and education leaders need to start taking it.




There are 18,339 children with disabilities in Albania. This figure comes from information provided by the governmental Social State Service to the Albanian Disability Rights Foundation in December 2011. There are 2,123 children with disabilities in mainstream education. This figure is found on page 89 of the Albanian Disability Rights Foundation’s 2010 report monitoring compliance with the Albanian disability strategy. Page 100 of ADRF’s 2009 report contains the figure of 736 children in special schools. Its 2010 report does not contain data on children in special schools, and there is no fresher governmental data.

That leaves around 16,000 children with disabilities excluded from education. (UNICEF uses different figures, its website states that “of Albania’s 12,000 children with disabilities, 94% do not attend school”. Different figures but still startling rates of exclusion).

UNICEF uses different figures, its website states that “of Albania’s 12,000 children with disabilities, 94% do not attend school”.