Universal design in action: A school for students with disabilities
The concept of universal design is based on the idea that the production of buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to all – regardless of disability – is a best practice. Today, as I toured the Absolute Residential School (Школа интернат Абсолют), I was able to see the universal design concept in full swing, for the first time in my life. Designed by a team of architects aided by educators, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists and more, this school was truly accessible to everyone. Founded only three years ago, this school has 98 students, all of whom have some sort of disability – hearing, visual, cognitive, emotional or physical. While the sad reality was that this school represented the Russian trend towards segregating students with disabilities from mainstream public schools (regardless of cognitive capacity), the very amazing and happy reality was that this school couldn’t have been more full of positivity and happy kids. Funded primarily by a private foundation with only limited government support, this school hummed with happiness.
We started the day by observing a canine therapy session for a young boy with autism. When the quiet and somewhat uncommunicative boy began the therapy, he was having a hard time tolerating human touch, or understanding his own body. Through touching Night (the black rescue dog who made up the canine part of the team), and having his therapists name the body part that was touching Night, this boy has started to experience his body in a more integrated manner. I was moved greatly by watching the difference between the boy’s behavior before and after working with Night.
Another boy I observed flew into the room in a whirl of constant activity. It was explained that he could not concentrate well, and jumped from space to space, thing to thing, so the goal of therapy was to help him to focus. He was a high energy, verbal kid, who grabbed at Night and pushed him back and forth. Night was as calm as could be, a perfect therapy dog. Over the course of a few minutes, this child went from hyper un-focused, to very focused on a task involving spelling words related to the dog and pictures of dogs. The transformation was astounding. Unfortunately, this service is provided by volunteers who train their dogs for free, and travel 2+ hours from Moscow to this school once per week.
Classrooms in this school were built for children in preschool all the way through what looked like junior high school or middle school, in American parlance. One classroom was designed to help children with disabilities (who were a bit older than 5) get used to being in a school environment. They had desks affixed with their names and photos, sensory aides, and even beds to take a nap when their practicing work became too overwhelming. My sense was that this classroom was used for students who had lived in a Family Support Center (formerly referred to as an orphanage) and perhaps had not been given as much stimulation as they might have ideally received. Other classrooms were bright and comfortable learning environments that were way more welcoming than the classrooms of my youth. The school also boasted a series of workshops designed to help give children marketable skills. These classrooms included a wood shop, a sewing room, a florist’s greenhouse and a book-bindery. I met a very proud young man who showed me the fruits of his book binding and box making labor, and I was truly impressed with his marketable items. Etsy needs to know about this school, stat!
During a delicious lunch with the school’s director, Svetlana Sotskova, I asked whether this school could serve as a model for the rest of Russia. Director Sotskova indicated that she felt that the Russian government was starting to pay attention to the 10 or so schools of this nature in the Russian Federation. Mind you, there are circa 80 states in this country, which has a total square mileage of 6,592,800, making it the largest country in the world. While the current Russian education system appears to me to consist primarily of public schools that have a standard curriculum taught to all students, including some with disabilities who do not have what Americans refer to as special education plans, there has certainly been significant interest in the American system. The idea of interdisciplinary collaboration (i.e. social work, psychology, occupational therapy, etc.) in the schools targeted towards the mainstreaming of students with disabilities while supporting teachers in learning how to manage mixed classrooms has sparkled a number of eyes here! I have had several requests for more information on how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is implemented in the United States.
I left this school feeling inspired about all of the good going on inside those walls, now, if that good could just extend a few million square miles more!
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