By Lina Giannarou
“Speech therapist with extensive experience takes on people with speech impediments, autism; 15 euros per class.” “Specialist tutor with experience at a special needs school takes on children with learning difficulties, autism; 10 euros/hour (negotiable).” “Child psychologist takes on children with learning difficulties; 11 euros/hour (negotiable).” “Social worker offers home therapy; 8 euros/hour (negotiable).”
Like the hidden symptom of an insidious disease, the above ads in the miscellaneous section of a daily paper in Greece reveal the dire situation of hundreds of families caring for children with special needs at this time of crisis. Benefits for disabilities and other special needs have been slashed since the start of the crisis and the country’s main healthcare provider, EOPYY, can take as long as eight months to refund money spent on special classes, doctors’ visits, purchases for special equipment etc. More and more parents are having to pull their children out of special needs school as the cost becomes unbearable and are instead opting for home tutorials, the cost of which has dropped to absolute minimum levels.
“There is no one to guarantee the quality of these services, but many families simply have no other choice,” Marietta Mylonopoulou, director of the Center for Children’s Neurodevelopment in Piraeus, told Kathimerini. “The problem is not just that social security funds have reduced their contribution to the care of special needs children, but also that they can take months to provide reimbursements, putting a huge amount of pressure on families.”
Benefits have also been slashed, Mylonopoulou said. For example, children with cerebral palsy are entitled to just 590 euros a month, those with autism get 440 euros and with serious learning difficulties, 250 euros. She also explained how the number of therapies her center offers dropped 12 percent from 2010 to 2011 and 55 percent from 2012 to 2013.
“Some reduce the number of sessions their children have from, say, five a week to three. Others simply stop bringing their children to therapy centers altogether. I know of parents who can’t even afford to pay for gas to drive their children to the center,” said Mylonopoulou.
The director of the Piraeus treatment center for children with mental and physical disabilities added that all such facilities have reduced their fees in response to the crisis and the challenges faced by patients and their families.
“The cost of children’s treatments falls mostly on the families,” the father of a 16-year-old quadriplegic girl who identified himself only as S.A. told Kathimerini. “Anyone who has a child with special needs knows that the costs are much, much higher than what you receive in benefits. From the diapers many need to the walkers and special seats, the expense is unfathomable.”
S.A. says that the absence of state-run facilities is also a major problem.
“There is no public special needs school for my child. There may be schools for children with mental disabilities or who are deaf or have other problems, but there are none for children that have a variety of symptoms.”
Public facilities are also woefully understaffed, according to experts.
The number of special schools in Greece is 108 at preschool level, 177 at elementary level, seven middle schools, four high schools, 80 professional orientation workshops, 308 preschool introduction classes, 1,810 elementary school introduction classes and 330 classes for pre-middle school. These facilities are short of 300 psychologists, 280 social workers, 190 occupational therapists, 230 speech therapists, 25 child psychologists, 120 physical therapists and 140 school nurses.
“The schools need to be staffed immediately. More and more parents can no longer afford to take their children to private centers for treatments,” said Panagiota Leotsakou, the head of the Association for Special Education Staff of Attica.
“It may not be apparent to people who don’t know, but the progress these kids make with special therapy is really impressive,” added S.A., the father of the quadriplegic teen. “When they learn to eat on their own or put on a T-shirt, you feel just like the parents of normal kids when they come home with good grades.”
Experts argue that the problems for special needs children and their families arising from the state’s ineptitude or indifference start at the diagnosis stage.
Vassilis Rougias, the head of the Association for Special Education Staff of Central Greece, said that there are major shortages at Greece’s 62 diagnosis and support centers for people with special needs too. The centers are also responsible for grading the level of disability, which determines the amount of state support received.
“These centers are woefully understaffed and many simply cannot operate. This has a huge impact on the children and their families,” Rougias said.
The expert added that at the seven centers in operation in Attica, the waiting time for children to be diagnosed can be as long as two years. At the center that covers central Athens, there are just seven committees assessing some 122,000 children, when there should be at least 12.
The situation is complicated further by the fact the law stipulates that all high school special needs pupils need to be re-evaluated by the centers before they can enroll to participate in university entrance exams.
“We started the academic year with a backlog of 500 applications for dyslexia certificates from parents of children in senior high who want to take the exams,” explained Leotsakou. “Meanwhile, children who should have started elementary school will just have to wait.”