A man grabs a shiny red helmet and puts it on a boy’s head. He rolls over a bicycle and presents it to the boy. “Are you ready to learn?” he asked. Scared of falling, the boy, who is about 13, hesitates. But then he hoists his leg over the bar, and he starts to ride, with the man gently steadying him. The boy screams the whole time while the man keeps saying, “You can do this.” One small jerk to one side and the boy’s yells get louder. The man’s words, “You can do this,” get louder also. Finally, the boy says he has had enough. But it is evident in the man’s eyes that he knows he can eventually teach this boy how to ride a bicycle.
Children normally don’t learn how to ride a bike at school but at Institut Medico Educatif “Al Casal” (IME), a school for children, adolescents and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, learning how to ride a bicycle or cook a meal or do laundry is not unusual. The education at IME is geared toward learning life skills and preparing students for adulthood.
Education Department Manager Philippe Hauffray says the main goal of the school is to find an achievable objective for each child. “It’s compulsory as a team for us to define an individualized project for each student,” says Hauffray, “Each kid is unique.”
More than 5 million people in France, about 10 percent of the population, are disabled, according to a 2005 census. Since 1975, the French government has passed a series of laws to protect the rights of disabled people. The most sweeping came in 2005 when the government passed a law guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities, participation and citizenship for disabled people. This law grants disabled children the right to go to school and provides money for the disabled to have a quality life.
Hauffray explains that with this law children are allowed to attend a school that caters to their needs without charge. In fact, the parents are given money to take care of them outside of school. And when the young adults have finished school, they are given money every month to take care of themselves. The school received a grant from the government to build a new school in 2008.
IME serves 70 autistic and mentally disabled youngsters between the ages of 6 and 20. In 2008 the school received a grant from the government to build a new facility, which opened in 2009 in the town of Le Soler, outside Perpignan.
Children who are autistic have their own wing. Hauffray explains autistic children need to have structure everyday. One small change could cause a breakdown; therefore they have their own special classrooms and highly structured program.
Regardless of their disability, each student is given a list of objectives for the year. These objectives – being able to dress themselves, being able to adapt to a new environment, being able to control themselves in public – are set by the parents and staff.
Most of the learning is done in a main classroom where children are grouped by age. However, the students also attend special classes in special rooms. In the workshop room, for example, students learn everyday chores and activities – how to cook, how to do their laundry, how to shop at a store. Hauffray says occasionally the students create a restaurant and they are able to serve the faculty members.
These rooms are there to teach the children to be independent. “Each kid needs to have special treatment and answer to his or her own handicap,” says Hauffray.
The school offers a residential component, as well. Some students only attend during the day, but others stay for one, two or even four nights a week. They all go home on the weekends.
These evenings at school give students the ability to feel independent from their families and to socialize with other kids. They also learn additional life skills.
Leonie Ollier Padilla, 13, spends two nights a week at the school, where she gets to socialize with her closest friend. “She loves spending the night there,” says her mother, Nathalie Padilla. “She’s always excited about going to school.”
Since Leonie started attending IME in January of 2010, she has become more independent, Nathalie says.
“Thanks to the school,” she adds, “Leonie has become more social and more open to different people.”
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