By Liga Rudzite (Latvia) How to learn what you already know

By Liga Rudzite (Latvia)
How to learn what you already know
On 17th of August, 2011, at a very early morning hour I landed in Almaty and was amazed by how
clear blue the sky was and how the light was so much lighter and intense than back where I took
off. Almaty air was so bright it was somehow quieter than what I had experienced just 6 hours
earlier. In the bright and somewhat quiet city where the easiest thing to determine is the directions
South-North I was to spend two weeks learning about inclusion within non-formal education. As is
often the case I managed to learn more than I expected, besides many of my new-learned things
were those that I had already known. Just that now they made a whole different sense from a whole
different perspective.
Of course, I am fully aware that whatever my lessons and contemplations were, those will never be
yours no matter how many times I repeat them. Nevertheless, here's a short account on what I know
I knew, yet discovered a-new during my job shaddowing in Kazakhstan: universal design makes life
better; women with disabilities have the same reproductive rights as others; integration is far from
being enough.
Universal design makes life better
I have friends with disabilities and have worked together with people with disabilities, but I had
never actually lived together with anyone with disabilities. Not that it's a difficult thing to do, it just
teaches to think a few steps in advance, complicate life less. It also very clearly shows obstacles that
people encounter both in what is experienced as regular living arrangement, on the street and in
human relationships.
From our experience, without someone to assist, it is nearly impossible to get out of the house in
Almaty. 2 weeks of staying in a beautiful apartment in the end does not make up for the need to be
able to go places, if only to sit outside and enjoy the warm summer nights. Even to get around the
fancy apartment building we were staying at was a challenge and once our wheelchair user actually
took up that challenge and tried to visit the nearest shop. Way there was somewhat good, but there
was no trying to even get in the shop itself. Riga is not a thoroughly accessible, yet Almaty taught
me that Riga is not really that bad. Trying to get to a shop in the part of Almaty where we lived was
nearly impossible. I believe it would be exactly the same everywhere else in the city.
Public transportation makes it impossible to even think that we would be able to go anywhere
farther than walking distance. Busses and trams were a wild thing by themselves – with doors a bit
open and sometimes no full stopping at the bus stops. The only option we had to get somewhere
farther therefore was with a private taxi. Which is great, really, you go anywhere on the street, raise
your hand and soon enough a car will stop. If you are into fancy cars, you might be in luck, as even
the luxury cars sometimes stop to taxi you in their direction. Of course, if one is in a wheelchair, the
price of the taxi goes up. Though the driver himself does not put any effort in accommodating the
passenger, nor her wheelchair.
Not being able to access freely your lunch choices also limits the experience of everyday life.
It really is the small things that make life enjoyable. I do not know what it is that make it so difficult
for those planning the living spaces to understand that universal design is an important precondition for quality of life. It is not the product itself, but the possibility of accessing the product
that makes it enjoyable.
And no options for accessing the product create pressure on a personal level as well. At times the
tension in our fancy apartment was high with trying to somehow find a balance between “we can't”
and “we should”. Best thing about it – we actually had the ability to deal with the tensions and to
arrange our common life around them.
The specifics of women with disabilities and reproductive rights of people with disabilities
On one of the first days we had a talk with ladies working in Shyrak. Their organization is
encouraging women with disabilities to experience themselves as people with sexual and
reproductive rights, which are so easy to evoke from them by careless doctors and prejudiced
opinions of society. Women with disabilities most often can have sexual relationships. They also are
capable of choosing a likeable partner for such relationships. Women with disabilities in most cases
are able to give birth and become mothers. They are able to care for their children and contrary to
what many fear – disability is not contagious and it is not given from mother to her child.
Shyrak has been working with women, doctors and society to let them all know and understand
these simple truths. And it is astonishing how women succeed in building families once they learn
that they can. One of the ladies in Shyrak told me a personal story of her long way to understanding
that she did not have to look only at those men who had exactly the same kind of disability that she
did. It took years and years before she learned that her disability is not a tool for classification but
just a way she is. By accident, actually.
This is something I would take easily from the job shadowing with me to any place I would go – all
women deserve to be loved and respected. They have a choice concerning their body. They can take
the decisions regarding it and these decisions need to be respected at all times.
Inclusion and integration – still not obvious enough
Finally, after being there and seeing how things work in non-governmental sector and the way
learning activities are carried out in those few places we visited, I became even more convinced that
inclusion does not happen through integration. Integration is not enough for all people to be able to
realise their potential.
Inclusion is different because it is a mutual ongoing process of people being able to live up to their
potential, being together or apart by their own choice – offering equal opportunities both in terms of
infrastructure, legislature and attitudes from the society.
Inclusion is something that means that both society and individuals accept that there is diversity
within the society and that this diversity is to be used to its full potential.
Inclusion in youth and non-formal activities means bringing together diverse people for the benefits
of mutual learning. Integration would mean training a certain group to behave in the society or
towards a certain group in the society. Inclusion means bringing together all stakeholders and
learning from the process of learning and being together.
Job shadowing gave me an opportunity to test my own skills and courage to take up a challenge – to
work in a little-known context and in a language that I speak well, but not yet fluent. I got to learn a
great deal from my colleagues – both Shyrak employees and my flat-mates – and from all the
organizations we visited and people we met. If there is one thing I fear we did not succeed to do is
to give the message of inclusion clearly and strongly enough to those we were visiting – it is
absolutely necessary to let people meet people and get everyone working together. There is no other
way people can learn the simple truths of universality of space and attitudes and the equal rights for
all not only in theory, but also in practice. But I guess it does require much practice to fully
understand the inclusion. I still have a long way to go and I am looking forward to it.