Story

How 8 passionate scholars lead global change for kids with disabilities

What do our international scholars accomplish after graduating? Read how our scholars plan to lead global change for kids with disabilities.

Group photo of international scholars containing 7 women and 1 man. Most are dressed in traditional clothes from their home country and pose indoors in an open hallway.

There are over 240 million kids with disabilities around the world. Established in 1920, Perkins’ Educational Leadership Program (ELP) trains teachers, educators, parents, advocates, and allies of the disability community into leaders who enact change in their home countries — expanding educational opportunities for children with disabilities wherever they work. 

No country is the same. Within each country are regions with different customs and levels of education and services, but our international scholars have prepared to navigate these systems. Learn how eight passionate educators from the class of 2024 will impact the lives of kids with disabilities.

Total impact by the numbers

International Scholars from Perkins’ ELP class of 2024 are ready to impact the world: 

Enhancing communication for preschool children with multiple disabilities in Armenia

Shushanik Dumikyan

Shushanik is a Special Education Teacher and Trainer Specialist at a Pedagogical Center in Armenia. She has both a master’s and bachelor’s degree in Pedagogy and Psychology of Special Education. Shushanik works to make sure her students are integrated into society with the right support in place. 

Since 2023, inclusive kindergartens have been established and operational in Armenia. Yet, these questions always arise after every training with special educators: 

Need

Students with multiple disabilities are often excluded from participating in inclusive kindergartens due to educators lacking sufficient knowledge, communication skills, appropriate facilities, examination materials, and, most importantly, toys and story boxes that align with the educational program and aid the children’s understanding and communication. 

Approximately 3 million people live in Armenia. According to statistical data of July 1st of 2023, the number of kids with disabilities (under the age of 18) is around 9,012 children. Among these, it is estimated that about 3,000 children have varying degrees of multiple disabilities (mild, medium, severe and profound). However, the exact number of children with multiple disabilities specific to blindness and deafblindness remains unclear.

Solution

The primary objective of Shushanik’s project is to provide training sessions for the educators at the Regional Pedagogical-Psychological Support Center. Subsequently, they will gather relevant materials, create story boxes, buy alternative communication devices for example and put the acquired knowledge and screening materials into practice at a chosen inclusive kindergarten.

AACtion! A comprehensive approach to communication in Chile

Valentina Fernández

Valentina is a Special Education Teacher at a specialized school for kids with disabilities in Chile. She holds a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s degree in Neuroscience. 

“My dream for them is that they can have everything they need to say things like ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘This is why I am feeling sad’ and ‘I love you mom.'”

Valentina Fernandez

Need

According to the National Disability Study (2022), in Chile there are a total of 3,291,602 people with disabilities, of which 587,709 are children and adolescents (14.7%).

All around the world, there are children with a lot to say, but they are unable to speak. At Valentina’s school in Chile, there are 35 children in similar circumstances. Her big dream is to help these children and others like them to find alternative ways to communicate.

Solution

Valentina plans to increase the use of Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) and calendar systems to unlock opportunities for communication. AAC relies on methods, tools, and devices for those who cannot use speech to communicate and express their needs. Calendar systems help students anticipate daily routines, fostering predictability and active engagement. 

Her first step: implementing training for all of the school staff and the families of the students. Her impact isn’t isolated to students at her school. Valentina plans to develop her school into a model school that would serve as a resource for other schools in her region. 

Valentina will establish a holistic, hands-on approach that supports the child, the family, and the school. Over time, she believes this will build a strong network of empowered people that can empower others in her region. 

Empowering individuals with deafblindness and complex disabilities through education in the Gambia

Matarr Jagne

Matarr is an Education Officer at the Ministry of Education in the Gambia. With a population of 2 million people, the Gambia is the smallest country on the African mainland, but it has a lot of heart, and Matarr represents his homeland well. 

Need

There is a lack of adaptive materials and resources for teaching and learning. There is also a big need for specialized training for teachers handling children with disabilities. According to the data from the Ministry of Education from the Gambia, there are: 

Solution

One of Matarr’s first actions will be to create a model classroom for children who are deafblind and those with multiple disabilities. Then he will assist with teacher trainings, helping them to develop strategies and gain confidence in instructing these children. 

Additionally, Mattar will be a valuable resource in assessing the progress of the classroom and building relationships between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, which are critical to the growth of a child with disabilities. 

His dream is that this model classroom is only the beginning to building a more robust model program throughout the Gambia. With his passion and dedication, we know Matarr will make this happen.

Early Buds: An inclusive infant toddler program in India

Dr. Sini Regi Thomas, PhD

Dr. Sini holds a masters degree in Sociology and Intellectual Disabilities, plus a doctorate degree in Education, specializing in inclusive education. She heads the Department of Special Education at an inclusive school in Kerala. 

The south eastern state of Kerala is also known as “God’s Own Country” due to its natural beauty. They are also known to have a hundred percent literacy rate and the lowest infant mortality rate in the country, except when it comes to kids with disabilities.

Need

In India, there are an estimated 1 million kids with multiple disabilities and visual impairments. The majority are invisible in their communities, and never get to attend school. To rectify this situation and uphold the rights of the 36 million disabled children in India, a shift towards inclusive education is imperative.

Due to a lack of early intervention services, children with disabilities had great difficulties in transitioning to elementary schools, school readiness skills, and foundational literacy and numeracy skills. 

In her position, Dr. Sini has encountered many cases where families of children with multiple disabilities are denied assistance until their child reaches age five, which is the typical school age in India. 

In one instance, a mother of a one-year old child with cerebral palsy was turned away from Dr. Sini’s —and others— school because her child was not yet of age. Her tear-filled question stayed with Dr. Sini, “are you asking us to wait that long for support?” 

This moment empowered Dr. Sini to make a difference. She identified the challenges she would need to address. 

Solution

Inspired by the success of Early Head Start programs in the United States, Dr. Sini developed an inclusive infant toddler program called “Early Buds.” This program will:

In a span of three to five years, Early Buds will build local capacity by training 75 teachers at Dr. Sini’s school. Additionally, her project aims to publish resource books and develop more resources and materials so that more educators can fulfill best practices.

Functional Vision Assessment training in Indonesia

Dr. Lily Tandililing, M.D.

When there is a concern over how a student uses their functional vision, we use a Functional Vision Assessment (FVA) as a tool to determine how a student uses their vision in their learning environment. During her months on Perkins’ campus, Dr. Lily learned of new assessment techniques and developed her leadership project around it. 

“I want to work closely with parents, my colleagues in the health care system, community-based health workers and with schools because this is the place where their growth and learning can happen.”

Dr. Lily

Need

There are 2.6 million kids with disabilities in Indonesia. By 2024, Indonesia implemented policies and regulations that support them to have access for health services and inclusive education, but medical professionals still lack the capacity to assess children with complex disabilities. Additionally, only a small number of teachers are aware of the symptoms of sensory loss in children.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Lily heads an early intervention service for children with complex disabilities in Cicendo Eye Hospital. Cicendo Eye Hospital is the first and only eye center that serves the whole country. 

Solution

Dr. Lily’s dream is to establish a resource center that caters to the needs of young children with complex disabilities in Indonesia. Her first step is to provide training of FVA for medical providers, teachers, and families. It will promote early detection and identification of visual impairment hence identify services that the child needs.

Let’s make it accessible! In Jerusalem

Tasneem Siag,OTR

As an Occupational Therapist, Tasneem works at a special education school in the diverse and beautiful city of Jerusalem. 

Unfortunately, due to the conflicts in the region, cultural influences, and intermarriage, the disability rate in the country is high, especially among children. 

Need

East Jerusalem alone has almost 5000 children with disabilities within special education and school settings. Kids with multiple disabilities have complex needs. Unfortunately, standardized or universally designed chairs, and other adaptive equipment, often fail to meet those needs. Universally designed equipment usually requires further adaptation, is costly, and takes a significant amount of time to obtain.

Despite Israeli law mandating the provision of all necessary adaptations and modifications for students to meet their educational and rehabilitation needs in school and at home, children often do not receive them. The procurement process is lengthy and with the rapid growth of a child, timing is crucial.

Solution

Tasneem’s plans to partner with a special education school in East Jerusalem that has already established a workshop to create adaptive equipment and adaptive seats using cardboard. Cardboard is an affordable material that is easily adaptable and easily obtained. 

Another component of her project is to build the capacity in her community by training teachers and occupational therapists on creating the adaptive equipment. While this project begins in Jerusalem, it is Tasneem’s dream to reach more children beyond and across the country.

Creating a resource guide for teachers and service providers of learners with complex needs in the Philippines

Babylene An Palma

Babylene is a teacher in the Department of Education in the Philippines, holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a masters degree in Special Education with a special focus on visual impairment. 

Need

Within the estimated 1.6 million Filipino kids with disabilities, only 232,975 learners with disabilities are officially enrolled in the education system. Additionally, teachers and service providers lack the knowledge and resources to help them. 

Babylene found herself in this situation — unable to effectively help one of her students with deafblindness and it ignited a desire for her to change this reality.

Solution

Babylene knows that to best support the unique educational needs of students, educators need resources on:

With the education she received in the ELP and her love for teaching, Babylene plans to publish a critical resource guide titled “Reaching Across: a resource guide for teachers and service providers of Filipino learners with multiple disabilities and deafblindness,” which will be aligned with her country’s national curriculum. 

Over 4,400 special educators will benefit plus service providers, parents, and guardians. Together, they will impact the lives of more than 14,000 enrolled learners with complex needs. Over time, Babylene dreams that even out-of-school children and youth with multiple disabilities will benefit as well as future generations.

Learning without barriers, transforming education for every child in Serbia

Jovana Krstic

Jovana is a special education teacher living in the south eastern European country, Serbia. She works at a small special education school in the capital, Belgrade. 

“All children regardless of the degree and type of disability have the right to express their feelings, needs, have the right to make choices, and have their own communication systems.” 

Jovana

Unfortunately, those rights do not apply for many students at Jovana’s school. A lack of communication systems can often lead to behavioral problems in children without the ability to speak. 

Need

In the Republic of Serbia, children with developmental disabilities make up only about 0.7% of the total population of children, which is 1,263,128. However, due to inconsistencies in legally defining the types of disabilities, it’s hard to determine an accurate number

At Jovana’s school, 24 of 125 students have communication difficulties. The highest percentage of these students are in preschool to second grade. The sad reality is that many students with multiple disabilities are often left out of the school system before age five and six. 

Solution

Jovana’s goal is to reach more students with multiple disabilities as early as possible to build their ways of communication to meaningful activities and play. She plans to build a model preschool classroom to show what is possible when children with multiple disabilities have access to the resources they need to learn and communicate. She also plans to hire a teacher-in-training so that this valuable information can be shared with others in the field.

Help kids with disabilities find their place in the world.

Each year, a new class of International Scholars arrives at Perkins to learn how they can make an impact for children with disabilities in their communities. Support this critical work by making a gift today.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE