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Charity Project in Albania

Charity Project in Albania

Greek/Albanian Border

Standing in the drizzling rain at the Greek /Albanian border checkpoint, waiting for the officials to decide to return from lunch, I wondered whether this was such a good idea. Looking quickly at my colleagues, Ian Bean from Inclusive Technology, Mags and Ally from Longbenton CLC, I could see that they were perhaps thinking variations on the same theme.

We were on our way to work for a week voluntarily to support the work of the Kennedy Foundation in Albania, something that had seemed a good idea earlier in the year but now, in November, in the rain, at the checkpoint - seemed a strange choice for a week's holiday.

There is no history of special education in Albania and most of the children with additional needs have spent many years in state run institutions living in intolerable conditions.

Church and Centre

Previously, Ally had taken out five computers together with some out dated assistive technology and software. That gesture was already having a profound effect but the project was hampered by the lack of specialist teaching and assessment knowledge in Albania.

Ian and I planned to try and remedy this in some small way by training two teachers and by working with them to show them how to assess and teach those children with special educational needs.

Thanks to the immense generosity of Inclusive Technology, the project was finally underway. Inclusive had sponsored the flights and accommodation for the journey, and in addition had contributed a whole package of software and assistive devices for us to employ with their children.

Albanian Safehouse

The arrival in Albania was grim, research beforehand had not really prepared us for the immense poverty, not just financial but in all respects, for example, all the trees have been cut down on the Albanian side of the border to use for firewood and construction projects. There are dentists but if you can afford to use them, there is no anaesthetic and so all procedures are done without. Equally, there is no pain relief available for women in childbirth. There are schools which operate in the mornings for those who can attend, and also in the afternoon but only for those who can pay for a higher quality of tuition. Many children, for example those who live rough on the streets, those who are exploited, abused or trafficked via Albania, have no access to education save those few supported by the foundation.

As is clear from the above, those children born with disabilities rank as a very, very low priority for the majority of Albanian society. During the morning sessions Ian and I supported the work of two teachers, Qamili and Elena, who are trying to change this. They work with those luckier children who have remained with their families and with those who have been rescued by the foundation and who now live in a safe house. We worked alongside these teachers as they attempted to work with children who had no useful arm movements, not primarily because of their disability but because of the many layers of clothing they had to wear to try and keep warm!

Sindi using a Computer

In the afternoons we worked at the State Institution. Words cannot adequately describe the conditions which exist once you enter this building which is perched on top of a hill, looking down over the town. The smell is overpowering, and most of the people who live there are herded into a single room which has one TV in the corner. There are not enough chairs for everyone, people were on the windowsill, the floor and one man was hiding under a table every time we entered.

Albanian Institution

One girl with profound needs was on the same seat every day, I was told she liked it there, it was her favourite seat. Her legs were black to just below the knees from gangrene. Her sister had died from gangrene recently. She does not receive any physical therapy or help to prevent the spread of the gangrene.

Elena has gathered a small group of people to teach and work with every afternoon here and it was this group that Ian and I worked with. The true tragedy of the situation became clear as Elena taught. Some of the group had no learning disabilities, for example Romi was blind; Eddie, his friend had CP, but they had been put into the State system years before and lived away from their families with a complete mix of those with severe learning disabilities; psychological disabilities and behavioural problems.

Romi has a little, very old cassette recorder and two tapes but has to carry it everywhere with him as he has no place of safety to call his own. Everything was taught orally from one book. Elena teaches them facts, stories and songs and they all enjoyed showing off what they could do to us.

Romi's Story

We had been asked to try and help Romi as it was clear that he had abilities far beyond his fellow inhabitants of the institution. We set up an IntelliKeys board and taught him to use tactile cues to operate a series of choices, firstly recordings of his own voice singing and later in the week, tracks from a CD of traditional Albanian music that we purchased for him. The moment when he realised he was able to control and choose tracks to sing along with independently reduced the rest of us to tears - all professionalism and years of working in the field of disability where you encounter hardship and tragedy and the daily efforts of many, did not stop the overwhelming feeling in that little room. This of course will be combined with later teaching with Moon (adapted for the Albanian language!) so that he will be able to write and communicate on a much wider scale. A computer was set up and left there and Elena will work with it and her students every day. Meanwhile Ian and I realised that Eddie was just as able but due to his difficulties speaking and moving, he had not been identified in the same way that Romi had. His desperation to take part and to learn the computer also was very difficult to watch as we knew that we needed longer than a week to support his learning.

Training Teachers

What did we leave that was sustainable? Two teachers who have a greater knowledge of how to assess and extend their teaching using technology, and who now have some of the technology to deliver this. Materials re-purposed especially into the Albanian language, and the skill to use framework software such as SwitchIt! Maker and ChooseIt! Maker to create their own. Perhaps most importantly - the understanding that all those we met could and should be educated, the clear message that in the UK we would teach all of those children and adults that we had the privilege to meet, work with and visit.

None of this would have been possible without the support of a few companies, however by far the main contributor was Inclusive Technology. The company has always given to our community in the UK, I cannot thank them enough for allowing us to give a little to some teachers and learners who have absolutely nothing at all. Next time you are having a hard day, please think of those in other areas of the world who do not have the buildings; the staff; the training; the technology; the finances; the specialist staff; the equipment and most importantly, the political and strategic support to do the same job as you do.

Caralee, who is one of the founders of the work there, identified her vision for educating all those who do not have opportunities in Albania,
". I believe this investment in these kids' lives will change their future, and will help them break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and abuse....it's an incredible opportunity...."

Romi's Song for Christmas

Thanks to Martin, Trish, Roger and Sukhjit - yet again you have been leaders in promoting educational inclusion for all!

With thanks to Carol Allen, Longbenton CLC, Newcastle.


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