Disclaimer: The European Network on Independent Living maintains their strong stance against segregated educational settings. The text below does not aim to advocate for special education, but instead to highlight the vulnerability of disabled children when they don’t have proper support in place, to transition into mainstream settings.

On the evening of Friday 27th, at a time when families are supposed to enjoy the calm and relax, knowing that the weekend is ahead of them, some of them received news that will change the way their lives unfold in the months to come.

With another wave of the COVID pandemic raging across Europe, safety is everyone’s top priority. However, in the race to protect the people, Serbia seems to have forgotten its disabled students.

The official directions from the Government state that specialised schools, including ballet schools, schools for disabled children and schools for adults should continue operating online. However, they can choose not to do so if the environment is deemed safe and if in-person education is in the best interest of the students.

On Friday evening, a Council of Schools for Special Education made the decision to close all schools for disabled children, until further notice. Many parents did not receive this news until they faced closed doors this Monday morning. The decision also comes as a shock given that mainstream schools continue to have in-person classes with students up to the age of 12. According the law, children under 12 are not to be left unsupervised at home, while those older can, and they attend classes virtually.

The fact special education schools closed their doors to all children left working parents helpless. Children are not eligible for personal assistance in Serbia and specialist teaching assistants are not allowed to work with children outside of school. Parents have to work and provide for their family. Now imagine you are that parent.

The schools did not provide any materials for remote education, there is no established educational plan, and no support in place. It is also not taken into consideration that many families of disabled children are also very low-income families, who may not have access to technology or the internet. It does not come as a surprise that they cannot afford private assistance or home-care services.

The absence of any reaction by the Ministry of Education, in spite of numerous pleas by NGOs, as well as individuals begs the question: is the education of disabled children less important than the education of their peers? Does anyone making these decisions realise that leaving young disabled children of working parents, single parents and those in low-income families without support equals an absence of their education at all?

When I look at the situation, I can’t help but feel hurt. I was one of the “lucky” ones, and attended mainstream schools, but one of these children could have been me. Many are students in my karate class. I can see they are confused and afraid.

Daily we hear about the importance of inclusion, early intervention programs and creating equal opportunities. Yearly, we see disabled people are underrepresented in all areas of life, in higher education and on the open labour market. I wait for the moment when the authorities will realise a child with equal opportunities is more likely to become an adult with equal opportunities.

In attempts to protect its most “vulnerable”, this society managed to deprive them of the tools to go through these challenging times without creating additional barriers. Once again, this pandemic has revealed all the dark gaps and cracks in society. Leaving us to try to fill them. Invisible and forgotten. Many have fallen silent. It’s time to give them a voice.

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Written by Nina Portolan, ESC Volunteer at ENIL, from Serbia