Atanas was born prematurely and spent the first three months of his life in an incubator. When he was strong enough to enter the world, his mother, Rose, found out her baby boy was blind with intellectual disabilities.
Rose took her newborn son home to her apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria, where his stepfather, and older brother and sister helped care for him. As much as they loved and nurtured him, Atanas’ family did not have the tools to help the toddler learn to do things for himself and develop independence. They knew they needed help.
At age six, Atanas arrived at the Sofia School for the Blind, one of only two schools in all of Bulgaria serving children who are blind or blind with additional disabilities.
“He could not feed himself; he was afraid to try different foods and was eating mostly soup,” recalled Emanuela Savova, Atanas’ teacher and a graduate of Perkins International’s Educational Leadership Program (ELP).
Emanuela learned specialized techniques for working with children like Atanas when she spent an academic year on Perkins’ campus as an ELP participant in 2004. She knew from this experience that children with disabilities can learn and accomplish goals when they are given the right support.
When Atanas first came to school Emanuela said he could not speak, was afraid to touch objects, and easily became emotionally upset. He needed to be led to the classroom by hand where he joined a handful of other children who were blind with additional disabilities for educational lessons and therapies guided by a team of specialists.
|Emanueala with students who are gaining pre vocational skills selling slices of a fruitcake they baked in cooking class.|
Slowly, Atanas’ teachers earned his trust. They taught him to use tactile symbols as a form of communication and to help him understand the structure and activities of the school day. He developed the skill of reading braille and worked with an orientation and mobility specialist using a white cane to navigate his surroundings.
Today at age 14, eight years after arriving in Emanuela’s classroom, Atanas is feeding himself without help and communicating openly with his teachers, classmates, and family members.
“He understands the meanings of words, carries out verbal instructions, and clearly expresses his wishes. He can even recite short poems and sing songs,” Emanuela said.
Perkins International supports professionals like Emaneula who are sharing their specialized knowledge by training teachers in public schools as well as increasing the skills of teachers in schools for the blind to work with children who have multiple disabilities.
Emanuela is doing her part by working on a collaborative long-term effort involving Sofia School for the Blind, Varna School for the Blind, and Sofia University, which offers bachelor’s and master’s level coursework in multiple disability education. The goal of the project is to build up local expertise in multiple disability education through sharing curriculum, best practices, and teaching strategies.
Emanuela has trained public school teachers throughout the region and acts as a liaison between the two schools and the university. Hundreds of children and more than 150 teachers who work with children with multiple disabilities have benefited from such trainings to date.
To spread the knowledge even further, Sofia University is running a professor exchange program sending professors to give guest lectures on multiple disability education at two regional universities in Romania and Serbia.
“The quality of education in public schools as well as schools for the blind has definitely improved. Teachers have more resources and feel comfortable contacting teachers from the schools for the blind and asking questions,” said Perkins International Europe & Eurasia Regional Coordinator Dennis Lolli.
|Atanas uses tangible symbols and a calendar system to communicate with teachers and family.|
Perkins International supports these efforts with consultations and financial support for transportation and accommodations. Without this support it would not be feasible for teachers and professors to create this network. Without professionals like Emanuela, who know what students with disabilities are capable of achieving, thousands of students like Atanas might never get the opportunity to step out into the world and realize their full potential.
As a result of professionals coming together and also working closely with families, there is increased awareness in the community about the needs and abilities of children with multiple disabilities. In 2010, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Education recognized the importance of these efforts by designating Varna School for the Blind a National Resources School, authorized to organize national seminars on working with children with multiple disabilities.
As children with multiple disabilities throughout the region find more opportunities, Rose and her family continue to marvel at Atanas’ progress and emerging personality.
“It has led to increased quality of life for the whole family,” explained Emanuela. “Atanas’ mother can go to work leaving him safely to school … she is especially pleased by the fact that her son can now talk, walk and eat independently.”
Throughout Bulgaria thousands of children like Atanas are waiting for the opportunity to share their unique contributions but they first need the understanding and support of individuals who know how to work with them to bring out that potential. They need more Emanuelas to serve as ambassadors of hope.