Sunday, November 15, 2009

Award-winning Spanish actor with Down syndrome pushes for inclusive education worldwide

From The Times of Malta:

Surrounded by a group of eager listeners, Pablo Pineda (pictured), a charismatic teaching expert and up-and-coming actor, argues that the educational system around the world needs to change.

The 35-year-old Spaniard is unique because his insights into child psychology and pedagogy are different, imaginative and thought-provoking.

Mr Pineda is the first person with Down's Syndrome to obtain a major degree from a university in Spain. He is now pushing the envelope even further by reading educational psychology, his second degree.

He was recently in Malta for a seminar on inclusive education for Down's children, organised by Inspire, through which he hopes to inspire parents and teachers to open doors for such children rather than give up on them.

Mr Pineda made international headlines last September when he bagged the Silver Shell award at the 2009 San Sebastián International Film Festival for his performance in Yo Tambien (Me Too) - a film inspired by his life.

In the film, Mr Pineda plays a 34-year-old with Down Syndrome, who graduates from university and falls in love with his work colleague.

In real life, love has eluded Mr Pineda - so far. He feels this is the one major hurdle he has not yet managed to overcome, but he knows it is something he must manage on his own. "Everyone has a right to love and be loved. The one thing I am really scared of is solitude," he says.

Within a couple of days of being in Malta, Mr Pineda had already learnt a few Maltese words. When he was asked to be ushered into another room for the interview, he responded with "nistgħu" (we can).

He says his aim is to show society that Down's children can set goals and reach the targets that everyone else aspires to if they are given the same opportunities.

His parents were incredibly supportive and never treated him differently to his older brothers, except that they kept pushing him to expand his horizons and never give up.

"I am not a child. We are not children," he says, holding his spectacles in his hand like an intellectual.

But then he cracks a joke, his face creases into a beaming smile and everyone around him laughs on.

Although he agrees he is gifted in some ways, he is convinced that if people are rewarded and encouraged they will always be able to do special things in life.

"Sometimes when I meet parents they tell me they want their children to be like me, but I always tell them that everyone is an individual. I don't think they should raise their expectations too high, but they should never limit or confine their children's potential."

Mr Pineda has lived all his life with 'normal' children and he therefore finds it difficult to understand why girls look at him differently.

"It's very complicated. I feel like I am in the middle of two realities," he says, adding that his film manages to capture many of the inner-most feelings that he has always found difficult to express.

However, he feels that the beauty of diversity and human nature is that everyone has some form of disability or challenge in life, and everyone can learn from each other.

"The educational system is based on a wrong premise. There should not be a partition between people who are 'disabled' and people who are 'normal'.

"Some teachers have a tendency to put people with disabilities in a box and use the same model for all, ignoring the fact that everyone has different capabilities."

He adds that education is "too intellectual", using too many books and rules instead of focusing on creativity and imagination.

"Any professional who tells a parent that their Down's Syndrome child will only reach a certain mental age, is making the biggest mistake of their lives. No one ever stops learning. It's a lie," he says.

He advises parents to listen first and foremost to their intuition, and to learn from mistakes, which they will inevitably make. He says Down's children should make an effort to learn everything they can, understand their condition and overcome it.

Mr Pineda thinks people should stop seeing someone like him as having some sort of "deficit" and instead adopt an attitude that focuses on "ability".

The young man's abilities are well amplified in the film currently being shown in Spain. It will eventually premiere around the world.