Amira loves her toy Minion. She’s spent much of the morning with her head down, fidgeting quietly on her parents’ bed. Then her mom flips a switch on the yellow plastic figurine, triggering a burst of music and flurry of flashing lights.
The 3-year-old, who was born deafblind and has limited vision and hearing, lifts her head up high to reveal a wide grin. It’s an adorable moment – and a teachable moment too, explains Marcela Toscano, a consultant for Perkins International’s Buenos Aires project in Argentina.
“When the music and lights stopped, Amira stopped smiling,” says Toscano. “In that situation, as a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, we will try to teach her to say ‘more’ in sign language. We want her to communicate what she likes.”
This is the first time Toscano and Mariel Giannattasio, Amira’s public school teacher, have visited Amira at home. Space is tight inside the tiny single-room house. It’s hard to imagine a family of five living here, but Amira’s parents Dante and Cynthia Vera have no choice.
Poverty is widespread in the hardscrabble Moreno district, where the streets are muddy and littered with trash on this rainy winter day. But that harsh reality doesn’t stop hardworking parents like the Veras from wanting a high-quality education for their youngest child.
“I want Amira to learn more,” says Cynthia, who started bringing her daughter to school three months ago. “I want her to talk and walk and have a normal life just like anybody else.”
Amira is one of more than 1,300 public school students with multiple disabilities now benefitting from Perkins International’s teacher training efforts across Buenos Aires province.
Since its founding in 1989, Perkins International has worked to improve blindness education in Argentina by building local partnerships, training teachers, empowering families and advocating for inclusive government policies and programs.
For the last 15 years, Perkins International has partnered with the provincial Ministry of Education in Buenos Aires to offer comprehensive trainings in multiple disability education. The trainings have equipped hundreds of special educators with the knowledge and skills required to effectively teach children and young adults with visual impairment and multiple disabilities.
Before this Perkins-led training initiative, the vast majority of children with multiple disabilities in Buenos Aires province were cut off entirely from the public education system.
“They were invisible,” says Toscano. “It was like they didn’t exist.”
Now, thanks to the expertise of Perkins International, there are more students with multiple disabilities receiving a quality education in the province than ever before.
For Amira, the opportunity to go to school two days per week has been transformative. At Escuela Especial 505, where Giannattasio and 12 other teachers were trained by Perkins International, Amira is learning fundamental skills that will pave the way for a lifetime of learning.
“Thanks to Perkins, we keep opening our doors to new children,” says Norma Castro, Amira’s school principal. “The impact of the training has been great. Perkins has given us the tools to foster independence and self-determination in our students.”
Getting Amira to Escuela Especial 505 isn’t easy. Cynthia must arrange for a babysitter to watch Amira’s two older siblings and then travel with Amira on crowded public buses. She wants to buy her daughter a wheelchair, but they can’t afford one. So for now she wheels Amira around in a well-worn baby carriage.
One early hurdle for Amira at school was learning to be comfortable around new people.
“In the beginning, she had a lot of dependence on her mother,” says Giannattasio. “She didn’t want to stay with me, so her mother would stay in the classroom and the three of us would work together. But now her mother can come and go and Amira won’t cry. This is a big change. Amira now leaves school happy each day.”
For special educators, their journey with students is marked by small triumphs like this. The work is demanding and the challenges here are steep, but the payoff is worth it.
“I have to be very consistent and patient,” said Giannattasio. “But when I see a small change in behavior by one of my students, I know I am making a difference in their life.”
Amira, pictured here in her father's arms, reacts to her favorite toy. Photo Credit: Ale Ares.