Focus on the future

Special education in Cuba

With 100 students enrolled, the Abel Santamaría Special School for Blind and Visually Impaired Children is a prime example of social inclusion for pupils with this kind of disability

Sundred Suzarte Medina (Text & photos) Granma International

Although his pace is deliberate, he “looks” forward as someone defying circumstance, and seeing this makes me smile. He is so sure of himself, facing the future, believing in his potential. He holds in his hands the necessary tools of certain triumph, because more important than a human condition, is the aptitude which allows him to improve, and observe that which ordinary eyes can not see. Reiniel Guzmán Frómeta is 15 years of age and in 10th grade at Jesús Suárez Gayol Pre-university High School, in Havana. It is a typical school, like any other in the city. His relationship with his peers is good; his academic record, excellent; and his social development, exceptional. For some teachers he is their best student. For the majority, he is the most well-rounded in the school. Limitations? None, well, yes, one… he is blind.

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“It is difficult for parents to teach their blind and visually impaired children, but with consistency and faith they can help them progress”, emphasized Claribel Frómeta, Reiniel’s mother.

Despite this, Reiniel is an example of what can be achieved with adequate educational cooperation – essential to the successful inclusion of people with this type of disability in society. After attending the Abel Santamaría Special School for Blind and Visually Impaired Children – in Havana’s Ciudad Escolar Libertad – from preschool through 9th Grade, Reiniel was ready to move to the general education system, having mastered orientation techniques and the Braille system of reading and writing. His accomplishments are encouraging.

“At this school, I learned the first steps that enabled me to make the transition to a regular school. The quality of teachers is excellent and the change wasn’t very difficult. I have always been able to rely on the support of everyone, everywhere; and although I don’t know what I want to study, I know that I definitely want to go to university,” Reiniel said.

According to José Manuel Pérez López, director of Abel Santamaría, the imperative is to provide children with skills which will enable them to be fully integrated into society, despite their limitations, in such a way that their disability does not hinder success in their personal or professional lives.

The Abel Santamaría school is large, well ventilated and has open spaces for recreation and mobility. It has a staff of 56 teachers and 97 students, 30 of whom are completely blind and the remainder with 29 different types of visual impairment, in particular cataracts and severe myopia. There are also 13 students with mental disabilities, some blind-deaf and others with autism.

“We work with general education curricula, only changing the techniques, procedures and teaching methods. A child here receives the same education, in the same time, as one in general education. This means that, when they are integrated, they are at a similar level”.

“As soon as they master orientation techniques and learn how to use a cane, we can talk about the possibility of transferring them to another school. We teach visually impaired children to utilize their visual capacity with greater efficiency, putting their learning into practice in daily life. Once they transfer to the other system, we become a source of support and advice. We take steps to ensure that the child is completely successful in the other school. We also support the teachers. Until now, none of the 79 children transferred has had to return to our institution, and next semester we are considering transferring 14 students to general education. There are currently 18 blind students enrolled in university in the capital, achieving very good results, the director”. 

With the intention of reaching the greatest level of inclusion, the school has four rooms where students who don’t attend the pre-university high school develop vocational skills. Despite this being the school’s main objective, López explained that the principal obstacles to transferring a student to general education come from parents, who believe that their child will be better served, if they continue on at Abel Santamaría. However, teachers at Abel Santamaría agree that the process of socialization is best achieved through interaction with people who don’t have these conditions. Therefore, teachers work closely with families to teach them the best techniques, so that their children learn to cope independently.

Being useful to society

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Equipment such as magnifying glasses, is available at Abel Santamaría, despite Cuba’s economic limitations.

 Special education in Cuba is one of the education system’s principal challenges, as teacher training and the use of specialized materials and equipment can be expensive. Despite this, Abel Santamaría maintains its initiative, creating teaching methods with the resources available and encouraging students themselves to search for alternatives. For example, they construct lecterns from cardboard, make their own graph paper or use other variants.

For more than 50 years the Cuban state has successfully supported social inclusion of the disabled, and insisted on the need for society to accept their limitations and perceive in them an opportunity for the country’s development. According to psychologist, Geraldina Mercedes González, born blind, people who believe that a disability limits the contribution one can make to society are mistaken. These ideas are “psychological barriers, which do more harm than physical barriers. When we have the opportunity to contribute socially we do so in a successful way. We try to do it in the best possible way.

“I would like to end with this message to anyone who undervalues us at any time: We are human beings, the same as everyone else, with a different way of processing information, through hearing and touch, but we have the same intellectual potential. We also deserve to share a little in the joy of supporting and contributing to society”, emphasized Geraldina, with a hazy look which contrasts with the accuracy of her point of view, as someone who can see far beyond the horizon.

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