Tetovo, 23 April 2019 (MIA) – Every Saturday at 11 a.m., coach Ifraim Ljuta arrives at the gym in the Textile High School in Tetovo and is immediately greeted by at least a dozen of his students with disabilities who are there for their weekly hour of practice.
During our visit, 13-year old Agon, a sixth grader with autism, was especially exited. Agon loves languages and greets his coach in German, English and Bosnian before every class. Ifraim responds and hugs him, before moving on to greet the others.
Although practice starts at 11 a.m., the students come in at least 15 minutes earlier to get ready, so Ifraim can start the class as soon as he arrives.
“They can’t wait to come in to train and hang out. This is the only activity some of them have outside, while others also go to school. It’s evident that they love coming here to play sports and learn, same as other children,” Ifraim Ljuta said.
The children can attend practice free of charge. In addition to teaching this class, Ljuta is also the coach of the athletic club “Studenti”.
Sara Duraku (16), Vildane Ahmeti (16), Ardijan Shabani (22) and Agron Hajredini (32), who won two silver and two bronze medals in athletics at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Abu Dhabi in March, rarely skip practice. Their success at the Olympics is an inspiration for all other students.
“Since coming back from Abu Dhabi they only wear their Special Olympics tracksuits. They had a wonderful time and are still exited for winning all those medals.
Their parents say that a month after coming back they are still happy and energized, and want to train even harder. Their success attracted other parents of children with autism or Down Syndrome to come in and take interest in our activities,” Ifraim explained.
Children with disabilities here can accomplish so much more if only they had the same opportunities children with disabilities have abroad.
“Their parents often struggle financially. Most of the children don’t go anywhere on their own so every extra activity, apart from taking them to school, is a financial burden for the parents.
Additionally, parents need to be better informed about the benefits that sports and other inclusive activities can have on their children,” Ljuta said.
Ljuta works with PE teacher Elmedin Mustafa and physiotherapist Naim Pajazati.
“Constant practice is key. Autism and Down Syndrome are intellectual disabilities, so repetition is very important for the children to remember the exercises and stay in shape both mentally and physically,” Elmedin Mustafa said.
Sara Duraku is the perfect example of what can be accomplished through constant training and inclusion.
She’s done sports most of her life, goes to school regularly, and is very independent. Ardijan on the other hand, doesn’t go to school and Saturday practice is his only social activity.
The children have other hobbies as well, which contributes to their greater social inclusion.
“Sara like listening to music. She doesn’t know the names of the bands or the singers, but she can find their videos on YouTube.
The same goes for Vildane. She and Sara have the same taste in music so they often listen to the popular songs together.
Agron likes to watch funny sketches, while Ardijan is more active on social media. Agron went to Sarajevo with his parents, and he loves telling people about his trip,” Ljuta explained.
“The stadium in Abu Dhabi was huge. We’ve never seen one like it. And the city was big and very beautiful, too,” Agron said.
“We met athletes from Kosovo, Serbia, Tunisia and made new friends,” Sara added.
Their success at the Special Olympics was a step towards overcoming the prejudice that children with intellectual disabilities face. Recently, more and more people are contacting their parents and teachers to congratulate them and offer assistance.
“We get more praise, but no one offers financial support. And financial support is key for these children’s development. It allows us to take them on trips and organize educational visits.
The success at the Special Olympics motivated people to come in and train more often. We hope that we’ll be even more successful in the future and have other children join our program,” Ifrain said.
“Practice makes perfect. If they want to improve, they have to train both individually and together.
When we teach them a new exercise, they are immensely focused. They keep asking to compete and win more medals. Just like all other children, they are extremely motivated,” Elmedin said.
He added that parents need to be persistent and sign their children up for various activities.
“There are parents who give up after a month, if their kid doesn’t show any progress. They think that this is some kind of therapy and if they don’t show signs of improvement they stop bringing them in.
Persistence is key for achieving social inclusion. If the child settles into a routine, they can go as far as the Special Olympics,” Ifraim said.
The Saturday practice is part of the “Inclusive Sport-Our Reality” project. Besides doing athletics, the children also play football and basketball.
Activities for children with disabilities are also held by professor Bedzhet Tochi at the Tetovo University, as part of the practical training of students acquiring a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
“Hendimak”, an organization from Tetovo, offers similar activities.
Tr. by Monika Mihajlovska