I think September is a great month because it starts off the end of a calendar year. While it signals the end of summer, the beginning of autumn is the start of a new school year, the countdown to many widely celebrated holidays, apple pies, leaves turning all sorts of beautiful colours and in general it is a preparation for new beginnings.
Having just finished yet another arrivals week at my place of work, I caught myself being a bit resentful this year. So many children are starting school, university, college etc because the right to education is reflected in international law in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 26 states:
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The Cypriot government, while responsible in making education accessible and available for all, has failed to understand autism and to provide establishments which can cater to adults with autism living in the Cypriot society. Hence, it is left to autism societies, organisations and groups to create their own places of education and development of character. But what happens to areas where such an organisation doesn’t exist? Or it doesn’t have the funds?
Adults with autism over 21 years old in the Famagusta area are left to their own (and their family’s) devices. Parents are faced with an impossible choice of whether to provide privately funded development opportunities and care, or to cease education and/or to admit these persons to centres which bear a label stating “for people with disabilities”. Such abstract grouping is not only impractical but it is a disadvantage to all persons – despite abilities. While we are calling for a specialised unit/centre for adults with autism it is important to understand that the aim is not segregation – it is safe specialisation. So, how does the Cypriot government expect the same centres that houses for the elderly to cater for Downs, autism and learning disabilities? Or for parents and family to arrange transfer to the nearest autism facility without additional funds while providing for the family?
Ignorance – is why our kids are not included in the planning stages for education, social care etc – the inability and unwillingness to understanding these individuals and the arrogance in not seeing them as individuals.
Grouping them together and imposing a further financial burden onto the families is a manifestation of how we mistreat people with abilities that do not “fit” into the preconceived notions of “mainstream”. Denying them inclusivity from the moment they don’t meet the made up milestones that dictate our education system is only the beginning. Our society continues to outcast them in employment, relationships, friendships, social ‘norms’ and education. This is how the SMILE Project was born.
The Autism Support Famagusta organisation was formed by parents and friends of people with Autism Spectrum Conditions in the Famagusta area. Our kids grew up and had nowhere to go. So we stepped up and created a place for them in a world that tells them they don’t have one unless they comply. The members of our organisation work tirelessly, incessantly and face every obstacle because they want to provide a safe place for their children where they can grow, develop their character and claim their rights just like every one else. Thankfully there are people, businesses and municipalities in Cyprus that contribute to our work, keep us going and support us. There are amazing people that apply to spend time and educate our kids so that they can cultivate their qualities, skills and provide them with new experiences. Every person involved in the SMILE project was once just like you. None of us knew autism until it burst into our lives. But we started learning, growing, getting stronger and stumbling the whole way here – to this moment when action was needed yet again. So here we are, getting back up and marching forward, hoping that you will be a helping hand (or smile) by our side.
This September remember that the things we take for granted aren’t granted to everyone. All over the world there are people that have to fight for the right to education either because of lack of funding, lack of space, materials or study requirements. All over the world the reason people are deprived of this right is because of their governments. What can you do? Simply learn about us, our organisation or a society near you. It may be that you know a person with autism in your school , your work, your network, your neighbourhood so find them and talk about it. Open up your world to include others and be kind because knowledge is power. If you want to do more you can donate, send supplies and even! take a volunteering holiday and help organisations build schools in different places around the world. There is always something we can do. Always.
Throughout autumn term I will write more and more about the SMILE project so that we can show you what we are doing and how we are giving our kids education and support that they should have had.
Our page for donations can be found here.