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'Culture of dignity' for special needs

Nick Holdsworth meets pioneers working to replace the Soviet institution-based system with something more humane. The grim Soviet attitude toward children with disabilities or learning difficulties was formally abandoned last month by Russian ministers.

The announcement of a new national policy to integrate the 1.5 million Russian children with special needs rather than isolating them in residential institutions, heralds an era of dignity, according to deputy federal education minister Alexander Asmolov.

Dr Asmolov, a leading psychologist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, does not flinch from describing the horrors of the institutions where children with emotional, behavioural or psychological problems used to be sent as if they suffered from "some sort of contagious disease".

Nor does he underestimate the monumental task he and other progressives face if they are to transform the the lives of these children.

"One of my political colleagues compared my dream of creating a culture of dignity for these children with the efforts of Don Quixote, but added that he was afraid in today's Russia I would end up looking more like a donkey than a don," Dr Asmolov said.

Amid political and economic instability - the rouble-dollar exchange rate last week breached the psychological barrier 5,000 to one - ministerial announcements of such wide-ranging significance are rarely backed up by cash.

Dr Asmolov's policy is no different. There will be no new money to support the integration of residential special schools into the mainstream education system; no cash to retrain teachers and therapists in progressive, child-centred approaches.

But the deputy minister is confident the goodwill of many enlightened specialists, versed both in Russian traditions of, for example, Lev Vygotsky - a respected contemporary of Jean Piaget - and western ideas, will fuel the momentum of change despite the chronic financial crises.

Moscow's Centre for Curative Pedagogics is one of a small number of pioneering organisations working in the spirit of the new policy. Set up six years ago by a group of specialists and parents of disabled children who were dissatisfied with the Soviet approach to special needs - one which wrote off many children, such as those with Down's Syndrome or autism, as fit only for lives of medicated isolation - it is today regarded as a leading model for the new approach. Along with a handful of other such centres scattered around Russia - in St Petersburg, Murmansk, Ekaterinburg - it is seen as an example of best practice.

Its founder, speech therapist Anna Bitova, originally aimed only to support parents who wanted to keep their children at home, rather than sending them to instit-utions. Her policy of refusing to turn children away means that today a staff of more than 40 specialists and consultants work with more than 250 children, housed in a two-storey former kindergarten not far from Moscow State University's Lenin Hills campus.

A further 150 children a month receive preliminary examinations, and collaboration with 15 primary and secondary schools allows long-term treatment and educational programmes to be devised for each child.

Supported by charitable donations, the centre struggles on its annual budget of about Pounds 50,000 but its triumphs - including the creation of Russia's first integrated kindergarten for children with special needs - keep the staff and supporters going. Its many staff - ranging from neuropsychologists to art therapists - also ensure a growing popularity.

Undaunted by the scale of change that is still needed, the centre's director, Roman Dimenstein, says simply: "We hope that our treatment will make the life of these children, their families, and of the entire society happier. We believe in the children and believe that these children should not be without help even in the hardest times."

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