The Croatian entrepreneur fighting for quality education for disabled children

The Croatian entrepreneur fighting for quality education for disabled children
Social entrepreneur Irena Orlović

16 March 2021

“When you want to change something, don’t expect others to do it — you have to be the change,” says Croatian social entrepreneur Irena Orlović. An expert in child development, Orlović has dedicated her career to creating educational resources for young people with learning difficulties: founding her own publishing house and app, as well as running support groups, online seminars, and workshops. Her life and work are the subject of a new short film, Harfa, part of a collection of films, FIVE, focusing on women-led businesses which are making waves in their communities. Filmed in sun-soaked Split, Orlović’s documentary tracks her innovative, hands-on work in the community and the rapidly growing tribe of followers who are benefiting from her positivity and creativity.

Orlović’s journey began when her daughter, Matea, was born with heart failure. At three-days-old, Matea had a stroke, leaving her with severe brain damage. “The doctor didn’t think that she would survive,” Orlović tells The Calvert Journal over a video call from her home in Split. “We started going to therapy to stimulate her brain, but I soon realised that the parents [of disabled children] in Croatia didn’t have the support they needed to help their own children.”

Orlović with her daughter, Matea

When a child has developmental difficulties, early intervention is often crucial. But Orlović soon realised that there were few books available in her native language on early emotional and cognitive development. The only option was to fill the gap herself. “I had to take responsibility for my life and for my daughter’s life,” she says.

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For Orlović, that meant studying neuro-linguistic psychotherapy for five years before gathering a team of translators and editors to start her own publishing house, Harfa, in 2005. Based in Croatia and Serbia, Harfa translates and produces materials for parenting, personal development, social-emotional learning, early brain stimulation, and child psychology. It has since launched an award-winning app, Pametnica (or Smarty in English), with interactive materials to help parents provide remote learning to disabled children.

Her mission with the publishing house and app is simple, she tells me with passionate determination. “The main goal is to empower parents and to make them feel and understand that they’re not alone, especially if they have a child with a learning disability. Their life is not doomed; there’s hope for change, for things to get better,” she says.

But Orlović’s ultimate goal is to see children who need additional support learning alongside their peers in mainstream schools. She has recently opened her own primary school in Split, where she is putting her vision of a more inclusive and progressive schooling system into practice. “We don’t have a good educational system in Croatia,” Orlović says. She is particularly worried about the rise of mental health issues amongst Croatian schoolchildren: “Today, all neuroscientists say [what’s important is] how you feel during the process of learning. But here nobody cares about how children feel, it’s all about grades,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure in our educational system.” Orlović’s school uses the latest neuroscientific research on learning as the basis for the style of teaching, with teachers scrapping the old “frontal learning approach” where kids are listening and passive, instead focusing on the “social and emotional” parts of learning.

Orlović and Matea walk along the seafront in Split

Change could be on the horizon. UNICEF published a report last year putting pressure on the Croatian state to ensure early educational intervention for children with developmental difficulties was finally made a priority by the state. There is much more work to be done to make sure no child is left behind. But Orlović believes that even small steps will help to create a ripple effect of social change. “My strength comes from the belief that everything is going to be okay,” she says in the documentary, “I really believe in the power of good.”

“FIVE” will premiere on ShortsTV on 6 March and will be available on Vimeo on Demand and other providers in early March. For the latest on where to watch the films, please visit here.

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