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The assistants’ role in the process of inclusion of students with disabilities

Conversation with Ilina Cholakova, Agency for Social Development VISION, Bulgaria

In June 2022, Agency for Social Development VISION (VISION Agency) joined the Multi-IN project, which aims to support the inclusion of students with spina bifida and hydrocephalus in schools and kindergartens. VISION is a provider of social services for children and adults with disabilities in the fields of education, culture, creativity, employment and social development. For 25 years, VISION has been implementing its wide-ranging and socially engaged activities. Currently, the team includes 130 professionals from a variety of fields, who support more than 1,000 needy persons annually.

VISION joins the Multi-IN project, supporting the development and dissemination of Multi-IN resources, mostly by adding its expertise in providing assistance and social services for children with disabilities.

Ilina Cholakova is a manager of the Complex for Social Development in Varna, where VISION Agency provides social services for children and adults with disabilities. She is also the co-author of the Multi-IN Project Manual for assistants in kindergartens and schools on multidisciplinary care and inclusive education of learners with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. We talked with her about the “social assistant” service aimed at supporting children with disabilities in school and kindergarten.

What assistance services does VISION Agency provide to support children with disabilities?

Our service called “Social assistant for children with special educational needs” is innovative and unique in Bulgaria. We provide it in partnership with the Municipality of Varna. At the moment, social assistants support over 120 children attending general education schools and kindergartens in Varna. For the last 5 years, 25 children have successfully completed their education, supported by our social assistants.

The activities carried out provide multi-faceted support both to children with disabilities and to their families, combined with a built-up experience of partnership between professionals and social assistants, teachers and experts in the educational system.

Do all children with disabilities need an assistant in school and kindergarten?

Our social assistants support children until they gain independence. This is also the mission of VISION – more and more children with disabilities to be able to cope with their own lives. I believe that working with disabled children requires teamwork and an individual approach. If these conditions are present, not every child with a disability needs to be supported by an assistant, or at least not throughout their education.

What exactly is the role of teaching assistant in the educational institution – a school or kindergarten?

The main activities of the social assistants working at the VISION Agency are aimed at providing help and support in carrying out the educational process.  This also includes support in meeting children’s specific needs resulting from their disability and overcoming limitations to create an inclusive environment in education and full participation. 

What challenges do assistants face in their work?

Assistants are external employees for the general education institution. This sometimes creates tension in establishing duties and responsibilities towards the child with disabilities. In addition, there is often misunderstanding in some teachers or parents of typical children who do not want children with disabilities in class. Bulgaria is slowly moving along the path of inclusive education, but I believe that the goals we set for ourselves are achievable.

How will the Multi-IN project and the Manual for assistants help assistants?

The Multi-IN project and all related materials are very valuable. Each manual is aimed at a specific target group and is adequate to its needs. Diagnoses such as Spina bifida and Hydrocephalus are rare and assistants do not encounter these conditions often in their work. Here they will receive general, but also very specific guidelines for working not only with the child they will support, but also with the parents and the pedagogical staff.