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.
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