Taking the next step

After putting multiple disability education on the map, Perkins International is ready to expand its training efforts in Bulgaria

By Brian Messenger

The stairs are always waiting for David.

Fifty concrete steps separate the chipped sidewalk and his family’s third-floor flat in Varna, Bulgaria. On a rainy afternoon, without hesitation, the 17-year-old grips a metal handrail and starts climbing – slowly, methodically, confidently.

This is how David ends every school day. He doesn’t let visual impairment and severe cerebral palsy hold him back. In fact, he takes quiet pride in shattering the expectations of his doctors, teachers and parents.

Up on the third floor, David cracks a smile.

“Believe in the impossible,” he says.

David, 17, climbs up the stairs to his family's third floor flat.

David, 17, climbs up the stairs to his family's third floor flat.

David is one of thousands of Bulgarian students whose lives have been transformed by the educational expertise of Perkins International.

For the last 26 years, Perkins has partnered with the two leading schools for the blind and top teacher-training university in Bulgaria to expand and improve learning opportunities for children with multiple disabilities.

“Perkins has shown us the way forward,” says Julieta Petkova, director of the Ivan Shishmanov School for the Blind, where David attends ninth grade.

‘All because of Perkins’

The next morning at school, David is busy tackling a very different kind of challenge: second-period English class. He’s making it look easy.

During a reading assignment, David is quick to help a classmate pronounce a tricky vocabulary word. When it’s his turn, he effortlessly runs his fingers across a braille workbook, reciting a lengthy paragraph without missing a syllable.

“No one believed David would be able to read or write braille when he first arrived at our school,” says Petkova. “The same goes for his mobility. Doctors said he would always need a walker. But now he’s walking on his own. It’s impressive.”

According to his parents and teachers, David’s physical, social and academic development accelerated rapidly once he enrolled at the Ivan Shishmanov School, home to one of the strongest multiple disability education programs in the Balkans.

Director Julieta Petkova checks in with a student at the Varna School.

Director Julieta Petkova checks in with a student at the Varna School.

Perkins started training teachers here in the early ’90s along with staff at the Louis Braille School for the Visually Impaired, located 250 miles west in Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. Today, when you step inside the Varna and Sofia schools (as they’re known locally), examples of Perkins’ influence are everywhere you turn.

Each student has an individualized education program. This means when David takes his seat in third-period biology class, his teacher knows precisely how to adjust the lesson plan to fit his unique learning needs, as well as those of his classmates.

For students with cognitive disabilities, calendar systems hanging from classroom walls serve as brightly colored guides to their daily schedule. Teachers use object and picture symbols to help students who are nonverbal express themselves.

All of these strategies and learning tools were first introduced by Perkins trainers. Both schools also have teachers on staff who graduated from the Educational Leadership Program (ELP), Perkins International’s flagship teacher training initiative.

The Varna School is home to 117 students with multiple disabilities. The school offers an array of programs and support services for students and their families, and hosts student-teachers from around the region in an effort to share best practices.

Petkova credits Perkins with helping the school come this far.

“It’s all because of Perkins,” she says. “Behind all great teachers is great training. Thanks to Perkins, we know we can make progress with every child.”

These are model programs. It’s important for teachers to roll up their sleeves and really understand what is possible at their own schools.

–Dennis Lolli, Perkins International

Teacher Diana Keremedchieva and Ivana, 10, play with a drum inside the Sofia School.

Teacher Diana Keremedchieva and Ivana, 10, play with a drum inside the Sofia School.

‘Every child can learn’

Ivana is on a mission. The 10-year-old is visually impaired with severe cognitive disabilities. But she knows exactly where to go when her teacher, Diana Keremedchieva, hands her a small card with a picture of a drum.

Zigzagging through a maze of corridors, using only her fingertips along the walls as a guide, Ivana navigates her way to the music room.

Keremedchieva follows close behind. She grabs a drum and hands Ivana a drumstick. Ivana’s face lights up as she fills the room with sound.

“Ivana obviously loves music,” says Keremedchieva. “By reacting positively to the picture symbol, she’s offering input on her daily routine. It gives her a voice.”

"I believe my daughter will achieve many things."

Ivana is one of 85 students with multiple disabilities at the Sofia School, which is home to an early-intervention program for infants and toddlers and classes for students ages 6 to 21. The school also offers a wide variety of training and therapeutic programs, as well as support services for students who attend mainstream schools.

A lot has changed, in other words, since Perkins helped the school establish Bulgaria’s first-ever classroom for children with multiple disabilities in 1995.

“Under socialism, these children didn’t exist,” says Keremedchieva. “They did not go to school. They were kept at home or in an orphanage. It was Perkins that helped us embrace the concept that every child can learn.”

For Ivana, progress came slowly.

“In the beginning it was so hard,” says her mother, Vesselina Moneva. “Ivana cried constantly. But eventually she started to accept and trust her teachers.”

Now, staff members at the Sofia School are teaching Ivana to feed herself. At home, she loves to sing, listen to music and help her father wash his car.

“I am proud,” says Moneva. “I believe my daughter will achieve many things.”

A young boy sits cross-legged in a chair and a woman sits behind him smiling.

Perkins ELP graduate Ludmila Petrova works at the Varna School.

‘Bulgaria needs more teachers’

The campus of Sofia University is bustling with students.

Inside the Department of Special Education and Speech Therapy, Professor Mira Tzvetkova is drawing up a plan for the future with Dennis Lolli, Perkins International’s regional director for Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

In July, Tzvetkova, an ELP graduate, traveled to Perkins to become a certified trainer of Perkins International Academy courses in multiple disabilities.

The long-term goal of the Academy is ambitious: to help end the global shortage of qualified special educators by training 1 million teachers by 2030.

The first course in Bulgaria is expected to begin next year.

“It’s a big opportunity,” says Tzvetkova, who will lead the training. “Like all countries in the Balkans, Bulgaria needs more teachers with these specialized skills.”

A long-time Perkins partner, Sofia University is the only institution in the country to offer college-level classes in multiple disability and deafblind education.

Lolli considers trainers like Tzvetkova vital to Perkins’ efforts.

"We still have hard work ahead of us."

“Educators need quality training,” he says. “But it must be delivered within a local context so they can apply what they’re learning in their own classrooms. That’s what Mira brings to the Academy. She’s one of the best teacher trainers in Bulgaria.”

Lolli also envisions the Varna and Sofia schools hosting a practicum portion of the course, where trainees can gain valuable hands-on experience.

“These are model programs,” says Lolli. “It’s important for teachers to roll up their sleeves and really understand what is possible at their own schools.”

Today in Bulgaria, more children and young adults with multiple disabilities are receiving quality education services than ever before.

But even amid such progress, for every thriving student like David and Ivana, another child or young adult with multiple disabilities remains on the margins of society.

Looking back on two and a half decades of progress, Lolli can’t help but predict that Perkins International’s most impactful work in Bulgaria is yet to come.

“We still have hard work ahead of us,” he says. “I’m confident we have the right partners in place and the government support to keep moving forward.”


A map of Perkins International's partners in Bulgaria.

Perkins International began working in Bulgaria in the early 1990s.

Perkins and Bulgaria: A brief history

It all began with 100 Perkins Braillers.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991, a new era of openness was dawning in Bulgaria. Eager to share its wealth of knowledge, Perkins International donated the braille typewriters as a gesture of good faith – sparking a partnership with the national ministry of education that endures today.

“It was our way of starting the conversation,” said Dennis Lolli, Perkins International’s regional director for Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

In the early ’90s, students with severe multiple disabilities in the Balkans were considered uneducable. As a guiding principal to its work in Bulgaria, Perkins introduced the belief that all children can learn, no matter the severity of their disabilities. Perkins also emphasized the value of hands-on classroom experience, a major shift from the theory-heavy teacher training of the Soviet era.

“We were from the West,” Lolli recalled. “These were new ideas. But they work and it established our educational credibility in Bulgaria and across Eastern Europe.”

Over the next 26 years, Perkins helped start a special education renaissance.

In Bulgaria, Perkins staff led regular training seminars and workshops. In the United States, Bulgarian educators, administrators and teacher trainers immersed themselves on Perkins’ campus during multi-week study visits, while eight others graduated from the intensive, nine-month Educational Leadership Program.

Step by step, programs for students with multiple disabilities started to grow – and thrive – in Bulgaria. Today, Lolli considers it a model for what is possible when a country’s government, schools and training university work together toward a common goal.

“Our work in Bulgaria is a testament to teamwork,” he said. “I expect that to continue as we train more teachers and reach more students.”