By Mendee Jargalsaikhan
Before the pandemic, Ms. Kimiko used to travel to the ger district in a crowded bus to teach her students – who were all not in one place like kindergarten or school, but they waited for a kind-hearted Japanese teacher at their home. She doesn’t mind walking through impassible summer mud and the icy, slippery winter streets, nor the choking smog of burning coals and woods in the ger district. All she cares about is how to teach her students with disabilities and how to change the attitudes of their parents. Ms. Takahashi Kimiko came to Mongolia in 1998 for a two-year volunteer assignment as a kindergarten teacher and lived in the third largest city – Darkhan. Her passion of working with children brought her back to Mongolia in 2004 to work at a private kindergarten. In 2011, she established her own non-governmental organization to help children with disabilities. It was another touching podcast throughout which we felt her love for children and the unbending commitment to her dream of helping children with disabilities.
She Has Never Chosen Whom She Would Teach
The most challenging aspect of working in the development sector in Mongolia is to cope with excessive financial paperwork – she sighed – as she works alone. Otherwise, she likes to work in Mongolia. Even though there has been progress in increasing educational opportunities for children with disabilities, she pointed out there were a number of challenges. Teachers are not prepared to work with children with disabilities since they are already overwhelmed with 20-30 students per kindergarten classroom. There are private kindergartens, but it is not available for all disabled children. So, Kimiko san ventured out to help those who cannot go to kindergartens and schools – and she helps only those parents who allowed her to teach their children. In other words, she has never chosen whom she would teach depending on the location or level of disability. She insisted that she would never build or establish a kindergarten, or day care centre, because that is the job the Mongolian government should do. Therefore, she does not want to build a kindergarten or day care centre. She wants to work with a child when the parents are around. It seems to me that her key principle is to focus on the ‘can do’ and being creative about getting a child interested in learning, repeating, and experiencing with joy.
Just prior to the pandemic, she had 17 students – who live widely distributed in the city of 1.5 million population. In one day, she teaches three children, spending about an hour with each child. She said one hour is exactly enough and she does all her best to use that hour effectively. In winter days, she gets out of the ger district around 4 pm before it gets dark and prepares her lessons for the next day. In her teaching, she uses the same book for all children, for example, a well-known story of The Gigantic Turnip, but her teaching method would be different: there would be drawing or colouring activities for a child with Down syndrome, memorizing or speaking exercises for a child with intellectual disability, and concentration activities for an autistic child. And she proudly highlights that this is a mutual learning process for a child, the parents, and herself.
How to Teach Children with Disabilities
Treat a child like an adult, not always in ‘evii evii’ style (Mongolian words often used to spoil little children). The most important task is to build trust. If someone is always critical or does not pay attention, a child knows and will not have a mindset for open communication and collaborative learning. Also, one must be interested – as in her words, if the mind moves, the body will follow. So, one must be creative when in comes to getting the child’s interested and triggering their curiosity. Throughout the podcast, she advises anyone who is working with a child with disabilities not to stop at ‘chadahgui’ (cannot do). If you do focus on ‘chadahgui’, you’ll end up with ‘odoo yanaa’ (a Mongolian phrase used to express in fear or uncertainty), and you cannot think about the future. Rather, you should carefully assess what your child can do and cannot do. Again, you need to be creative about getting your child interested. In this way, you can imagine a realistic future with your child, and help your child continue doing things that they are able to do or are interested in doing. Even if your child does not know the ABC (alphabet), there will always be something that he/she can do. Here, Kimiko san shared one of her projects. The project is named ‘goyo ireedui’ (nice future) – which helped parents with disabled children to think about the future together. This strikes us an important exercise for all of us to do together with our children – pondering together to construct our imagined future of the children, us, and the community – instead of acting as if we knew what is best for them. As Kimiko hinted, parents should help children to see different opportunities rather than imposing their options on them.
Many Mongolian parents asked her why their kids do not speak and how to improve their speaking. So, in response, Kimiko san published a book with speech improvement exercises and teaching methods for Mongolian parents. We felt this book is a valuable book since it is based on her personal experience of learning the Mongolian language in her thirties and having worked with children over two decades.
Differences Between Japan and Mongolia
‘Zam’ (road, sidewalk in Mongolian) is a key difference between Japan and Mongolia. It is difficult not only for disabled people, but for everyone. Kimiko san shared her astonishment over the great balancing skills of Mongolians – on these uneven, often slippery (during the winter) roads and sidewalks. For all of us, it is hard to imagine how parents are struggling to navigate on these uneven, poorly maintained, slippery sidewalks with their disabled children. Otherwise, she thinks, there is no major difference between Japanese and Mongolian parents with disabled children. They share the same feelings and experience similar challenges. They are worried about the future of their children-though conditions and opportunities might be different.
This takes us back to the Mongolian situation. Parents who live in the soum (an administrative subdivision within the province) probably have limited access to a computer/internet and to experts whereas parents who live in the city may have more opportunities. Yes, indeed, one of our previous guests talked about the challenges for disabled people living in the ger district. Although they are in vicinity of the city, they experience similar challenges as those who live in the countryside. Regardless of their location or country, parents with disabled children face similar challenges and are wary of the future.
Advice for Us – Mongolians
‘In Mongolia, people are very helpful and always ready to help. This is unique.’ Besides this praise, she wanted to share her critical view of us. People talk about many good ideas and demonstrate their eagerness to do something about these ideas. But soon, they stop answering their phones and disappear. It is as if when they talk, they look up the sky and imagine all good things, but they do not look down to their feet – or think critically about the implementation. So, it is important for anyone who wants to pursue their good ideas to have a detailed plan – with first, second, and third steps. If it does not work, take a little break, and then try to figure out the causes and find ways to move ahead. If you do, Kimiko san assures, the gradual improvement and success will follow.
As one thinks about continuous small improvement, things would already be improving. Here she pointed to one example. She liked a café – that employs adolescents with Down syndrome. To make things easier for customers and employees, the café could use a little check-box menu – on which customers can write their names and mark their orders. This would prevent any embarrassing situation between the customer and the employees with Down syndrome. It will increase the confidence of these young people who are eager to work.
This was another pleasant podcast – listening to a courageous, determined Japanese teacher, who is fluent in Mongolian and an expert of local bus routes. And she has a big heart, passion, and a dream of helping to change the attitudes of parents with disabled children. I felt her weeping inside – when she talked about how parents have changed as she showed how to work with their children with disabilities.
The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia. We also want to thank our editor Riya Tikku.