Inclusive art classes prove a major confidence-booster for a young Azerbaijani girl with speaking and hearing impairments

Like many young people with disabilities, 17-year-old Shams from Baku has spent most of her formal education with other children with similar hearing and speaking impairments. Her opportunities for socializing and learning with other children have been limited.

And while Shams has never let anything get in the way of enjoying life and being actively involved in sports and arts, she has long wanted a chance to mix with as wide a range of other children — to socialise and work on the communication skills she needs to lead a more independent and fulfilling life.

Shams in the process of making ceramics
Shams in ceramic classes

That chance came along last year with the opening of a new Inclusive Vocational Arts and Crafts Training Centre in Baku — part of our initiative funded by the European Union (EU) to increase access to inclusive vocational programmes for children and youth with disabilities.

The Centre offers a range of courses for children and youth of all abilities in woodwork, pottery, stained glass, batik and decorative handicrafts.

Shams opted to enroll in a course on ceramics and joined 32 other teenagers learning how to design and make pottery under the expert guidance of Saleh Mammadov — a popular teacher at the Centre whom Shams affectionately calls ‘Grandpa Saleh’.

“Shams is a really lively and bright personality,” says Saleh, “always taking the initiative to build relationships in the group and always keen to learn. From the day she arrived she’s taken every opportunity to improve her social skills and make new friends.”

The ceramic classes quickly became Shams’s favourite hours of the week. Her elder sister, Gulnar, says the Centre has had a hugely positive effect:

“The fact that there are other teenagers there with all sorts of different abilities created a completely inclusive environment,” Gulnar explains. “My sister has always been eager to express herself through different means and mingle as much as possible and here she’s doing just that. I think it’s changed the way she sees herself and other teenagers, also what she’s capable of.”

Shams together with her sister Gulnar share impressions about the Center
Shams together with her sister Gulnar share impressions about the Center
Shams and her sister Gulnar

Gulnar’s assessment is music to the ears of those who worked on setting up the Centre as part of a project for the Promotion of Inclusive Education Through Traditional Arts.

UNDP’s project specialist Zarina Aliyeva says the aim of the Centre is precisely “to make everybody feel part of the same society by striving to create more inclusive conditions for learning and socialising — it’s about not leaving anyone behind, and that doesn’t just happen by itself.”

This EU-funded project implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Icherisheher State Historical and Architectural Reserve has already provided inclusive learning opportunities for 112 students.

“There need to be many more programmes and centres like this,” says Saleh.

“All young people should have access to mix with their peers and learn to communicate with people with different abilities in a safe space, learn from each other. This is absolutely necessary for an inclusive and healthy society.”

Shams’ friends from the Centre

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year the Centre had to be suspended, much to Shams’s disappointment.

Thankfully, however, the staff were quick to think of workarounds to keep the students in touch and engaged.

From the first day of the pandemic, the European Union and UNDP home-delivered art equipment to students and organised online classes so that the students could continue to make their handicrafts at home.

As a result, Shams has been able to keep up with her new friends and continue her weekly lessons. She has expanded her interests to other art courses, including taking up the challenge of making stained glass. “I miss my friends and I miss Grandpa Saleh,” she says, “but I know we’ll all be together before long.”