‘The Centre is closed for now, but our community lives on!’

Inclusive learning project goes online to help people with disabilities stay virtually close during COVID-19 pandemic

tudents from the Inclusive Vocational Art and Craft Training Centre in Baku are finding creative ways to help each other get through this period of self-isolation by staying in touch through social media and sharing activities online.

Launched just a few months ago in September 2019, the Centre has already grown into a strong learning and social community for some 115 students, many of whom have disabilities, as well as their teachers, parents and friends. And though social distancing measures mean the Centre is now physically closed, those involved are staying ‘virtually’ close.

‘We keep up with all the friends we made at the Centre on a special WhatsApp group,” says 19-year-old Zeynab Jafarzade. “I think it’s really important to stay busy when you’re stuck at home, so I’m carrying on with the jewellery and souvenirs I learnt to make at the Centre.

But now I’m also videoing my crafts and sharing clips with the others to help cheer everyone up.’

Like many people with disabilities, Zeynab has long-since learnt how to make the most of her time at home, and through her video clips she encourages her friends and peers ‘not to become idle’ and to keep in touch with each other.

The Inclusive Vocational Art and Craft Training Centre was set up by UNDP, the EU and the Icherisheher Administration as a project to help young people engage in shared learning and creative activities, as well as providing a friendly place to socialise.

The Centre is committed to being as inclusive as possible and welcomes students with disabilities, providing all students with opportunities to mix and build friendships with their peers from all backgrounds.

‘What’s really been amazing is how quickly everyone has come together to build this community,’ says Zarina Aliyeva, UNDP’s project expert. “After only a few days the kids were all connecting with each other outside of class. And it’s not just the students: their parents and friends have become involved, supporting each other with mobility issues and arranging transport. Due to the pandemic the Centre is physically closed for now, but our community lives on!’

To help keep the Centre’s activities going as far as possible throughout the COVID-19 crisis, UNDP has been providing support, in cooperation with the EU and the Government of Azerbaijan, to help teachers from the Centre provide online teaching and record video lessons to share on WhatsApp and YouTube. UNDP is also working on developing some fun interactive games to keep younger students entertained. (Adults are also allowed to play!)

No better proof of the success of this inclusive project in building a community could be found, however, than the many ways in which the students are taking the initiative to keep each other’s spirits up during this prolonged period of self-isolation.

Ilkin Shahverdiyev, for example, a 14-year-old student with hearing impairments, has sent out a moving message in sign language urging his new friends and teachers to stay safe and keep up with creative work:

Ilkin studies stained glass and batik at the Centre. He has by no means given up his dream of becoming a successful artist and he continues his classes online at home.

The Centre is part of UNDP’s wider and long-term commitment to overcoming barriers for people with disabilities in Azerbaijan. Working closely with the government, UNDP has helped set up new services and solutions aimed at ensuring equal educational opportunities for children and adults with disabilities and empowering them to lead independent lives in the community.

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