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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

School Opens Doors for Disabled

ST. PETERSBURG -- Twelve-year-old Slava, who suffers from cerebral palsy, struggled for several seconds to speak. But once he gained control of his muscles, the English he had been practicing came out with a perfect accent and he beamed with pride.

What Slava, along with 96 other students, is learning at Dinamika, an experimental St. Petersburg school for children with cerebral palsy, is that his disabilities shouldn't hold him back.

Impressive folk art lines the narrow corridors, where children aged 6 to 14 pass by on crutches and in wheelchairs. And, although most of the children struggle to maneuver their paintbrushes, their patience and determination produces works of art that display no trace of their disability.

"The world isn't ready to integrate these children, so we create a world for them. But our goal is to make sure these children can do something once they leave here," Salima Tupikina, Dinamika's deputy director, said.

At Dinamika - established eight years ago by the parents of children with cerebral palsy who wanted something better than state-run clinics - each student at the school receives an education based on his or her individual needs and desires.

"Some of the children hope to become accountants, so we teach special courses to prepare them," Tupikina said. "Why shouldn't they have every chance to become accountants if they wish?"

Last year, out of six graduates, five went on to enroll in institutions of higher learning, while only one opted to stay home. Of the 1997 graduates, two went on to higher education courses at pedagogical institutes, one was accepted into art school and three were hired as designers and manufacturers of orthopedic shoes for a local factory.

Two British specialists who volunteered their time and expertise last week at Dinamika said they found a school that was intellectually and psychologically superior to its Western counterparts.

"We came here to update their knowledge of cerebral palsy and teach them new physical therapy methods," said Peter Morrell, a visiting pediatrician from the South Cleveland Hospital in Middlesbrough, England.

"But what we discovered was a very high academic standard and high expectations, which showed the children's potential to see beyond their disabilities. And I suspect they're achieving a lot more here than [their counterparts] in England or the U.S.," he added.

Although the school is in effect isolating handicapped children from society - a practice with which some education specialists in the West would strongly disagree - the children are ultimately better able to integrate themselves following their school years.

For Russia's handicapped children, integration is no small challenge. "America is the leader in handicapper accessibility and the U.K. is catching up, but here there is virtually nothing," Carol Rushton, a physical therapist from Yorkshire Community Heath Trust, said.

"These children would be in normal schools in the West, but the conditions are different here, as regular schools lack the facilities to handle children with physical handicaps," she said.

The two specialists were sent to St. Petersburg for a one-week stay by British Executive Service Overseas, or BESO, a non-governmental organization that operates in 90 countries to provide economic support and social development to institutions in need.

Morrell and Rushton, who also visited a number of St. Petersburg's state-run schools for children with cerebral palsy, said Dinamika compared favorably to the other alternatives they had seen, most of which concentrate solely on clinical therapy.

"[At Dinamika] they are much more into holistic and practical methods, whereas most other schools focus on medical control of disability," Rushton said.

Directors say lack of funding is preventing the school from serving more children. The hotel is housed on the first floors of two buildings near the Sovietskaya Hotel, and space is cramped, with rooms where up to three classes are held at once. The toilets are not handicap-accessible, the smell of mold pervades the rooms and many of the children suffer from allergies.

The school receives minimal state funding only for salaries. The average salary is 800 rubles (about $32), the smallest salary being 150 rubles. Children are regularly absent when the school's old buses break down. "We cannot afford repairs, and we often don't have money to buy such basic items as pencils and paper," Tupikina said.