Sonia Coutinho

This description of Sonia Coutinho's work was prepared when Sonia Coutinho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.


In the state of Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil, Sonia Coutinho has developed a center for arts and alternative education for adolescents with moderate learning disabilities that is remarkably effective in aiding their transition from school to productive employment and facilitating their continued intellectual growth. It is also playing an important role in heightening public awareness of the potential of such individuals for productive roles in society.

The New Idea

For adolescent Brazilian boys and girls whose learning impairments prevent their continued progress in standard schools, Sonia Coutinho's Art and Alternative Education Center has developed a methodology that engages them in "production units" and uses all stages of the production process to develop their intellectual and social skills, enhance their self-confidence and self-esteem, and prepare them for independent and productive lives. Programs for more severely disabled individuals generally focus on their participants' handicaps, treat them as passive learners, and emphasize the mastery of highly repetitive tasks. In marked contrast, participants in Sonia's initiative are seen as active managers of their own, open-ended learning processes. Sonia's program is also very different from the usual "handicraft workshop" that limits its participants' role to the production process. The young people in Sonia's "production units" are engaged in all phases of managing a small business-planning, acquisition of materials, production, marketing and sales, and assessment of results. Center staff work with them in all of those tasks and use the tasks as the focal points for supplemental educational activities (e.g., in the mathematics used in planning and pricing and in consulting and reading articles and texts on various aspects of the production and distribution process).
The Center also serves as the working nucleus and learning laboratory for a larger project, the Association for the Development of Special Education, which is playing a rapidly expanding role in disseminating the Center's approach to other localities in the northeast and beyond and in training professionals for work with young people with learning disabilities.

The Problem

A substantial number of young people with learning disabilities and special educational needs are able to participate with some degree of success in the early years of the general education process. In their adolescent years, however, their continued progress in regular schools is often blocked by their intellectual limitations. At that point, they are generally left with three options–attempting to complete primary education through special courses and tutoring; continuing in school in hopes of maintaining the learning level already achieved and enjoying some social interaction; or staying at home and helping in household chores. But all three of those options are limiting and destructive of self-esteem, and each leaves the child with a feeling of isolation and frustration.
In Salvador and other major Brazilian cities, there are institutions that have developed effective programs for severely disabled individuals (e.g., young people with Down's Syndrome), but the needs of adolescents with lesser (though substantial) degrees of learning impairment are largely unattended. Once they leave the standard public education system, they encounter great difficulty both in entering the employment market and in continuing to develop their mental and social skills. Sadly, even though they have the potential for productive and satisfying lives, individuals with pronounced learning disabilities also encounter stigmatization and painful discrimination in the larger society, and that rejection further inhibits their learning processes. All too often, moreover, parents unwittingly accept the limitations that society imposes on their children and fail to provide the motivation they need for the development of their full potential. From the vantage points both of the affected individuals and of society at large, therefore, there is a pressing need for programs that will facilitate their transition from school to productive roles in the larger society and support their continued intellectual growth.

The Strategy

In working with young people with learning disabilities for more than a decade, Sonia's Art and Alternative Education Center has focused, from the outset, on integrating the development of reading, writing, and mathematical skills with productive activities in such fields as ceramics, leather crafts, cooking, silk-screening, and paper recycling. Gradually, however, as the participants' engagement in all phases of the Center's operations deepened and they organized semiannual fairs to sell their products, the notion of "production units," managed by the young people with adult support, emerged as the organizing concept for the Center's work.
By participating directly in the planning process, the young people enrolled in the Center set the calendar for the production, marketing, and sale of the products that they manufacture. In the classroom, they do mathematics exercises relating to the choice and purchase of materials and sale price of products, carry out research related to production and distribution, and write essays based on different phases of their work. For all involved, the process has proved to be exceptionally rewarding. The young people in the program have made substantial gains in mental and social skills and, most notably, in self-confidence and self-esteem. Sonia and her professional colleagues have acquired important new insights for more general application in work with young people with learning disabilities. And parents engaged in the production units as adult advisors have gained new appreciation for their children's accomplishments and potential.
Building on the success of the Center in Bahia, Sonia is now devoting increasing attention to the development of a parallel institution, the Association for the Development of Special Education. The Association is playing several increasingly important roles–in assuring the long-term financial strength of the Bahia Center (by raising funds from parents and other outside supporters), in promoting research on special education needs and methods, in developing exchanges with other institutions with similar missions, and in disseminating the methods that Sonia and her colleagues have developed at the Center in Bahia.
Through the Association, Sonia is spurring the creation of programs using the "production unit" approach in other Brazilian cities, and she is also planning to make greater use of the Bahia Center as a training facility for special education teachers.

The Person

Born and raised in the state of Bahia in the northeast of Brazil, Sonia completed a teacher training program in an institute in Salvador and, in 1972, accepted her first teaching assignment in a private primary school in that city. During the course of that assignment, she encountered a student with a substantial learning disability and worked closely with that student in a special project. Deriving considerable satisfaction from that experience, she decided to pursue further course work in developmental psychology at the Federal University of Bahia.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sonia worked in teacher training programs and other assignments in the Department of Education and Culture of the state of Bahia. She enjoyed that work, but she came to the realization that her real calling was in the field of child development and working directly with children with learning problems. Returning to that field, Sonia worked both with younger children and with adolescents with learning problems. In the course of these endeavors, she developed a particularly close bond with the latter group and an abiding concern for the obstacles and discrimination that they confront both in the formal education system and in society at large. In 1986, motivated by these sentiments, she founded the Art and Alternative Education Center and began to develop its programs. Although the Center and related activities have claimed most of Sonia's time and energies over the past decade, she has continued her association with various teacher training programs and other educational ventures. In the late 1980s, she also completed a research study for a master's degree in education from the Federal University of Bahia, and she has authored a number of papers on child development, learning disabilities, and related topics.