Adult Education for People with Disabilities in Estonia


November 22, 2006 was a black day for people with disabilities in Estonia. It was announced that regardless of the promises the Estonian government will not raise the benefits for disabled people from 2007. There has been no explanation either. The fact is that the monthly benefits for disabled people in Estonia have stayed on the same level for 6 years already although the prices have considerably raised. Now the organizations of Estonian people with disabilities are planning protest actions. Why won't the government raise the benefits? One of the reasons is probably that several basic questions concerning people with disabilities have not been discussed and thus a clear plan for the future is missing – this also counts for the learning of people with disabilities.
In Estonia there are about 45 000 adults with disabilities of whom only 12-13% are working. There is only one school designed specially for them – the Astangu Vocational Rehabilitation Centre in Tallinn. On the other hand there are specialised secondary schools for children with disabilities in almost every region of Estonia, altogether 43. Should there be specialised schools for adult learners in all areas of Estonia as well?

Specialized schools or integration

This very question has raised heated discussions in Estonia. Today the principle that adults including adults with disabilities should be able to attend the learning sites that are situated near their homes has gained most support. And towards this goal actions have been taken. In the academic year 2004/2005 there were already 33 comprehensive schools in Estonia where adults could learn in evening classes or by distance education, including the possibility to graduate. The same model has been taken over by vocational schools. In 2004 about 800 people with disabilities were studying in vocational schools. This development is also supported by the law of vocational education (1998) where in § 14 it is stressed out that people with disabilities should be included to normal study groups and only students with severe or multiple disabilities should study in special groups.
§ 10 part 1 of the education law of Estonia stipulates that only if the disabled person is not able to study in a public school will the state and local authorities grant the opportunity to subscribe in a specialized education institution such as the Astangu Vocational Rehabilitation Centre in Tallinn.
That means that the general principle in Estonia is that adults with special needs should have the opportunity to attend local education institutions in their area. Unfortunately this principle is still far from practice. The social service programme for people with disabilities of the Ministry of Social Affairs 2004-2006 admits that the social service legislation in Estonia has not yet become sufficiently client-centred to put these principles in practice, the infrastructure of schools is often unusable for people with disabilities (for example: no elevators or ramps), the supervision mechanisms for students with disabilities are missing, and there are no descriptions of standards or services that can be offered, the priorities of local authorities often do not even mention the education needs of disabled people etc. Thus there remains a lot to be done to integrate people with disabilities into the normal study environment.

The society or the individual

Discussions have also been held around the question of whose interests should the adult education serve. When the social scientist Väino Rajangu asked at an education conference in the beginning of the 1990s if adult education should not be based on the interests of the learners rather than those of the state then at that time this question was not even understood. The general attitude was that strongly state-centred. Today the attitudes have changed. In 2003 the education minister Toivo Maimets noted already completely unambiguously that political decisions concerning adult education are regulated by the market needs – the level and content of studies depend on the interests and needs of people that study, so to say the relation between demand and offer. Adult education strategy for 2004-2008 written during the sitting of education minister Mailis Reps states that an adult person should be able to expand his/her knowledge and skills based on the needs of a) him/herself b) the citizenry c) the society d) market needs. The needs of the learner are a priority in this document.
The strategy of adult education is stressing out that learners with disabilities can get an extra three study-years to complete the general education, people that have passed the age of compulsory education will be granted the possibility of more flexible learning etc. The vocational education law is stating that studies should be planned according to the wishes, differences and abilities of the learners.
On the other hand the aim is not a total decentralization of adult education – training centres and institutions are advised to collaborate on creating unified curricula where it is possible.

Working or living

Thirdly the content of adult education has been discussed. The main question is whether to value vocational training or free education. For a long period vocational training has prevailed, which is understandable in the context of Estonia’s changing political times when a lot of people lost their jobs and had to learn new qualifications. But when today the majority of education regulations for people with disabilities refer to vocational training only, then this seems rather extreme. Figuratively speaking the regulations follow an instrumental rationalist ideology according to which a human being is an instrument that has no other life but work life. In Estonia the question still occurs why a mine worker would need secondary education when elementary education seems more than sufficient for working with a drill. The academic Heino Liimets would answer this question by saying that the miner sometimes also leaves the mine and wants to talk with people in a knowledgeable way, marry a nice woman and raise their children to be intelligent and so on and so forth. A vulgar instrumentalist would not understand this, thinking that drilling skills are enough for a miner.
This kind of thinking lead to the fact that from 2004 the national budget support for non-formal learning was cut by half. Anything that was not work-related training was not considered worth the support.
The adult education strategy has made a correction here and from 2007 the state subsidy has been re-established – but not increased! The new strategy emphasizes that the non-formal education centres should deal with risk groups/minorities (people with disabilities, non-Estonians, over middle-aged people). In Estonia also men form a risk group as only 16% of adult learners are men.
Thus it has been understood that a human being doesn’t learn for work only but also for self-realization, social networking, civil self-determination etc. What is needed is not only knowledge, skills and motivation but also a new and innovative way of thinking.
The strategy of adult education for 2004-2008 notes that also formal education centres in all areas of Estonia should offer non-formal education besides the existing supply of open universities, summer courses of the universities, non-formal education centres and cultural centres. The ministry of education and social affairs has announced a public competition and is supporting about 45 non-formal education centres from its annual budget.

Levels or schools

Fourthly the question of whether educational legislation should be organized according to education levels or rather according to types of schools and the specificity of studies has been discussed. Until now the specificity of educational institutions has been the reference. As a result there are a lot of laws and documents concerning education: law of adult education (1993), law of basic and gymnasium education (1993), law of university (1995), law of Tartu University (1995), law of vocational education institutions (1998), law of private education (1998), etc.
The problem with all these documents and laws is that several of them have overlooked the needs and problems of adult education including education for people with disabilities. For instance the law of adult education mentions adults with disabilities only very briefly, but the law of private education has left private adult education completely unenclosed. This has caused problems for private schools for adults.
In the last years there has been more talks about the necessity to change to the level-based system where every level of education is obliged to offer possibilities to study also for adults, including adults with special needs. Unfortunately these talks have not yet resulted in any action.
In conclusion it can be said that in Estonia the shift from a centralized and state-based model towards a system where the learners’ interests and needs are followed has been rather successful. This also counts for learners with disabilities. Learner-based principles have become more clear and accepted but in practice the learning of disabled people is still far behind from the Nordic countries. The director of the Union of Non-Formal Education in Estonia has stated that in non-formal education so far almost nothing has been done.

The Estonian Chamber of Disabled People

In Estonia also the organizations of people with disabilities offer training and educational courses. The Estonian Chamber of Disabled People has several sub-organizations such as the Heart Union, the Asthma Union as well as the Union of People with Mental Disabilities. All these unions take care of both medical training as well as daily skills and other basic education. More about the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People in English language: