Aleksandar – The Great
UNIVERSITY OF SKOPJE AND DOWN SYNDROME – WHY NOT?
by Kristina Ozimec, Charlotte Funke and Ivana Petrusevska
Everyday he beats all predictions and visions that doctors and people had about him. With two poetry books and a brown belt in karate, this 21 year-old young man is breaking barriers everyday. Aleksandar is the first college student with Down Syndrome in Macedonia.
Amazing people come in the most unusual packages. Huge smile, greenish eyes and a big hug. Catching up is easy to do with Aleksandar who kisses and hugs almost everyone in his new student environment, the Pedagogic Faculty in Skopje. Yellowish leafs and beautiful landscape cover the yard of the faculty where he goes to everyday. Autumn arrived.
„I love this place. Imagine in my whole class I‘m the only boy. How can faculty not be fun? jokes Aleksandar, who became the first student with Down Syndrome that was enrolled in a Macedonian university. Many people pass by the faculty campus and most of them know him. One of these people is the faculty Dean, Vlado Timovski, who proudly says that Aleksandar is one of his best students. Most of the time he is more devoted and responsible than the others when it comes to exams.
Family is the key
His mother, Snežana who works at the faculty, says that the whole family is very proud of him. One day she hopes that he will become a pre-school teacher. The love, hard work and compassion of his family were the key to Aleksandar´s success. She says that they never thought he´d get this far.
The persistance of this amazing family to teach Aleksandar that he won’t get special treatment in life from people just because he has Down Syndrome, made him the man he is today. Even when doctors or people told Mrs. Snezana that her boy will be limited in certain aspects of life, she says they continued to work on his education. Throughout the years there were many situations where Aleksandar was treated as different. Once she went with him to the pool and she knew the woman who worked there, who told her to pay only one ticket, because for Aleksandar it will be free. “Afterwards he got really mad about not paying.He asked me, ´why am I so different that I can’t pay like everyone else´?“, tells Mrs. Snežana.
His strength lies in love
Three times a week Aleksandar trains karate. A small basement, Aleksandar and some kids from the neighbourhood. This evening, Aleksandar leads the warm-up. His movements are precise, after every step his feet hit the ground in the exact angle. Aleksandar breaths deeply, he is concentrated and absolutely under control. His eyes focus an invisible point at the wall, he gathers the power for the next jump, kick or strike. When he was twelve years old, he noticed that his karate teacher hesitated to teach him. “I will not make you any problems here“, were the words that he told his trainer the first time they saw each other. “Then I couldn’t resist taking him in the group”, his trainer says.
Even though he trained karate, in high school Aleksandar often got pushed around or beaten up by other kids who saw him as an easy target. Most of them didn´t know that he trains anything because Aleksandar would never fight back. He would never hurt anyone. Even during training when his karate trainer pushes him to the maximum and says “stronger, hit harder“ he only whispers “but I don’t want to hurt him”. His brown karate belt is only a trophy for him, because Aleksandar‘s motto is love. His message is hidden somewhere in his poetry, which is another passion of his. Maybe it’s on his new book cover where he says:
“This book belongs to all people with a good heart. And to everyone else! So they can understand that people with Down Syndrome can live and create. Let them come into my colorful world, which is a world for everybody”.
INTERVIEW: Rosica Koleva, inclusion specialist from “Sinolichka“ – Down Syndrome Association
Aleksandar Matovski (Cako) is an exceptional example for a person with Down syndrome that is included in society. Why arent there more succesfull examples like this?
There are people with Down syndrome who attend mainstream schools, go to work in sheltered workshops and manage to function somewhat independently. Unfortunately, very few have the opportunity to go beyond typical expectations by, as in Cako’s case, enrolling in University or expressing themselves creatively (through poetry, painting), without the extensive support from their families.
Could every person with Down syndrome get to faculty and what conditions would be neccessary for this to happen?
Just as in the case with typically-developing people, not everyone with Down syndrome can go to faculty. Due to the fact that Down syndrome is, among other things, accompanied by intellectual disability and the degree may vary from borderline to severe. The number of people with this condition pursuing undergraduate studies would be much lower than in the general population.
That is not to say that if appropriate conditions are provided, an intellectually higher-functioning person with Down syndrome is not able to cope with an academically more challenging environment. However, it is very difficult to talk about higher education when inclusive provisions are not properly introduced even at primary school-level. There is a lot more to be done in terms of curricular adaptations, teacher training and employment of specialist staff (Special Education Needs coordinators, Teaching Assistants) in Macedonian educational institutions.
What are the main difficulties for people with Down Syndrome in Macedonia?
The issues are different, like for example heart surgeries, frequently needed due to the presence of cardiac problems in people Down syndrome, are mostly carried out abroad. We also have issues with social welfare because the eligibility criteria for receiving financial support from the state are ambiguous, and the educational inclusion exists merely on a physical level – children are admitted to mainstream schools without proper adjustments being made. Unemployment, which is a general issue in Macedonia, is particularly persistent among people with disabilities, but there is also lack of opportunities for adults with this condition to socialize and to have independent living.
What kind of discrimination do people with Down syndrome face?
People with Down syndrome are not perceived negatively by the general population in Macedonia, though sometimes, an over-protective attitude towards them is adopted. I believe that discrimination mainly exists in the form of having low expectations and focusing on their weaknesses rather than potentials.
What do defectologysts do and why they are important for the education of these young students?
The defectologysts have a crucial role in facilitating the process of inclusion by working one-on-one with pupils, devising Individual Education Plans, working with teachers on differentiating the curriculum and the methods of instruction and collaborating with the parents. There are many qualified Special Needs educators in Macedonia, though their role can be perceived as somewhat obscure, since the training of these professionals is heavily based on the medical features (only) of various disabilities. Still, only a few of them end up working in medical institutions (such as the Centre for Mental Health or the Department of Pediatrics), while the rest are employed in special schools, NGOs or work as freelance teaching assistants to children who are included in mainstream schools (and as such are paid by the parents).
A small number have been working in the past two years as mobile special teachers providing services to all the schools within a municipality, but the effectiveness of this service model is yet to be evaluated. Some municipalities have begun to employ more specialists so that better coverage of the schools is ensured, but in order for real progress to take place, inclusive policies and practices ought to be adopted on a national level.