The strong concern and anxiety have been raised regarding what was heard in front of the Parliament, concerning the way and means of transporting children with disabilities. There were reports of a disabled wheelchair being tied with a rope inside a bus that was transporting students to and from school. Furthermore, the absence of clear legislation was presented as the perfect excuse for government services to justify the unjustifiable.
The Human Rights Committee, in response to a letter from Kostas Groutidis in which he explained the ordeal his son went through to attend school trips with his classmates during the previous school year, opened the issue of violations against children with disabilities within school units.
Mr. Groutidis mentioned in his letter that during the first school trip of the previous school year, the children were transported by a bus with only one seat for a wheelchair, but there were two children, resulting in his son being tied incorrectly and, during a sudden stop, falling off the seat. As for the second school trip, Mr. Groutidis did not allow his child to board the bus, as there was no room for two children, ultimately transporting him to the excursion location himself. A location that was not accessible.
The problems with the transportation of children with disabilities have also been highlighted by the President of the Association “Agalia Elpida,” Youla Pitsiali, who stated that this issue should have been discussed for years. She explained that the first violation against these children is the violation of their right to access education since, as she pointed out, these children are subjected to an evaluation by third parties to decide, without the children’s and their families’ input, whether they should be placed in mainstream classes or not. “They prohibit access to the classrooms, and we let it happen because there is no legislation. Then parents are discouraged from sending their children to school because they are told that they will be mocked, that there are no examination essays, and we let them be bullied.”
Mr. Augustinos expressed his dismay at the lack of legislation to address these specific issues and called on the Parliament to take action, emphasizing that it is time for decisions to be made and initiatives to be taken.
On her part, the President of the Association “Agalia Elpida,” Youla Pitsiali, in her statement, mentioned that this issue should have been discussed for years. She explained that the first violation against these children is their exclusion from education since, as she pointed out, these children are subjected to evaluations by third parties to decide, without the children’s and their families’ input, whether they should be placed in mainstream classes or not. “They prohibit access to the classrooms, and we let it happen because there is no legislation. Then parents are discouraged from sending their children to school because they are told that they will be mocked, that there are no examination essays, and we let them be bullied.”
Regarding the issues with buses, Ms. Pitsiali noted that it has been a problem for years, and in 2017, with the initiative of the then-president of the Federation of Parents of Municipal Education, Morfaki Solomonides, a program for accessible buses was implemented because there were no buses to meet the needs, and parents had to pay. As she pointed out, the company that won the bid stated that it was at the disposal of the schools to provide buses for children with disabilities for two years, during which the pilot program was implemented, and there were no major problems and significant benefits were realized. “All students were transported together in large buses. We don’t want the children to be transported in small buses but in large ones. The program was stopped, and it didn’t proceed. The Ministry of Education should tell us why it was stopped. For five years now, we have been saying that there should be legislation for inclusive education.”
Taking the floor, the President of the Cyprus Confederation of Organizations of the Disabled (CCOD), Christakis Nicolaides, noted that they have submitted a memorandum regarding the inequalities faced by children with disabilities in all areas. He emphasized that there are laws and regulations for mass transportation, both public and private, that must be accessible. “The specifications exist, and there are EU specifications. Refusing to accept that there is a problem and that there are ways to solve it will not help. From July until now, we have had 70 complaints. There was a case where a child was not granted a ramp to enter his home, and the Court ruled in favor of the child. There are complaints about the transportation of children; in Paphos, they left children with autism at school and did not take them on the excursion.”
The Response of the Ministry of Transportation
In response to what Mr. Groutidis reported, Mr. Andreas Nikiforou, the Head of the Directorate of Public Passenger Transport and Senior Officer of Public Transport at the Ministry of Transportation, emphasized that it was the first time he had heard about what Mr. Groutidis mentioned. He clarified that this was a school trip and not public transportation. He stated, “We are talking about a private company that has a contract with the school and the principal. Understanding that the vehicle was legal, it had passed the MOT (Motor Vehicle Inspection). The vehicle was suitable, but it did not have an extra seat for the second wheelchair.”
Mr. Nikiforou pointed out that during the contract negotiation, the school’s management should have requested a vehicle with a second seat or asked for a second vehicle. He also emphasized that it was the responsibility of the school’s management to document the needs. He further mentioned a meeting that took place at the Ministry of Transportation the previous week, during which it was decided to create a list of essential safety documents that companies must have for buses.
Statements from Educators and Parents
Taking the floor, Mr. Dimitris Taliadoros, the President of OELMEK (Secondary Education Teachers’ Federation), highlighted that requests for transportation services are made by the school’s management at the beginning of the school year, taking into account the needs of each unit. He noted that there are special buses for excursions. Regarding the responsibility of school administrations, Mr. Taliadoros pointed out that they do not have the specifications for vehicles; only the companies do, and they provide quotations.
“In the past, the police used to conduct inspections, but now the responsibility lies with the schools. What do the schools check? Whether the vehicles have permits, have passed inspections, and are safe.”
On her part, Ms. Myria Vasileiou, the President of POED (Pan-Cyprian Parents’ Association), suggested that at the beginning of the school year, contacts are made with bus companies to find the best solution and that the company is informed if there are children with disabilities. Regarding specifications and criteria, her response was emphatic.
“Our diplomas say ‘teacher,’ not ‘engineer’ or ‘police officer.’ It is not our responsibility to inspect vehicles; we do not have the knowledge.”
In his statement, Mr. Loizos Konstantinou, the President of the Federation of Parents of Secondary Education, noted that their position is firm. “The right to education is equal for all children, and the state should provide it.”
Regarding buses, Mr. Konstantinou emphasized the need to create a registry for school buses to ensure order. He also stressed the importance of creating the list immediately, so schools know what to request from the companies.