Integration in the education system
The central theme of this article is the integration of disabled people in the everyday society. I will try to prove the crucial significance of this inclusion, if we really want to create a world where nobody is excluded. This is a plea in favour of more tolerance towards, but also on the part of the impaired people. Although we could notice during the last decades that the huge gap of incomprehension is disappearing, there are on both sides still many prejudices and false truths left, which cause a lot of avoidable social suffering. As 2003 is chosen as ‘The European year for people with disabilities’, we have to seize this excellent opportunity to consider the much-needed changes.
As I got already fourteen years ago into the business – I went blind when I was five -, I am able to use my own practical experiences concerning the possibilities of integration. This is also the reason why I limit myself to blind and partially sighted persons, since I am not qualified to assess correctly all situations with respect to other impairments. However, from many contacts with wheelchair users for example, I have learnt that inclusion is also one of their most essential concerns.
Belgium is, compared to many states in Europe, one of the countries where the integration of visually impaired people is developing very well. Although it is not utopia or the cradle of inclusion, it might be useful to deal with the actual Belgian circumstances, as some kind of guideline. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize that our solutions are certainly not the best and only ones, and that they still strongly need to be improved.
Successively I’m going to treat the following areas of society: Education, labour market, leisure activities and the image in the press; each time I will try to answer the question how efficiëntly inclusion might be realized at this specific level.
The first step, which should be taken in the direction of a joint community, is making the usual education system accessible for visually impaired children. If the integration could start at such a young age, the acceptance of blind and partially sighted people would not cause almost any problem during a later period of life, because this process would be considered as the natural course of events, the continuation of youth experiences.
However, this approach is quite recent, given in the whole world during the fifties and sixties many people wished more specialization and an adapted treatment for disabled children, and consequently the ‘special education’was born. This evolution was in essence motivated by the idea that a child with exceptional needs has to develop on its own rhythm, which should help it to create a more positive self-image. This movement states that, if such pupils went to usual schools, they would not be able to follow during an everyday lesson, and so they would give up sooner or later. Further on, I’ll demonstrate that this reasoning was an illusion.
The reaction came already in the sixties, when a new group devoted itself to the equal rights for people with disabilities, and this emancipation movement contemplated these separate schools as socially discriminating. In 1977, Italy was the first country to start an inclusion programme in its education system, followed by Spain, England and Scandinavia, where nowadays integration is self-evident and it is prescribed by law. Belgium and the Netherlands were the next ones during the eighties.
A crucial move was made in 1993, when the UN included the right to Integrated Education in the Standard Rules of Equal Rights for People with disabilities. One year later, the UNESCO formulated many practical directions during the conference in Salamanca.
We are reaching the core of my plea, because now we will discuss several fundamentally human arguments, that reveal the necessity of inclusion.
First of all, we have to realize that pupils who grow up and are educated in a closed society, which a special school is in fact, are socially disadvantaged. They are surrounded by people who know their situation very well, and therefore we want to believe that they are really happy in their own world. And probably, in the beginning they are, but we must not forget that this is just ignorance. As many of these institutes are connected to a boarding school, the children leave this proverbial island only during the weekends. The contacts with the sighted peer group are too limited, and that’s why the visually disabled youngsters are even not aware of this communication problem. Most of the time, they feel comfortable and protected in their little community, but at the age of 18, when they have to bid the institute farewell, they are faced with many difficulties and questions, of which they just did not presume the existence. They meet prejudices and misunderstandings. They begin to consider each person who’s not used to dealing with any impairment as prejudiced and narrow-minded. In the end, they even do not try anymore to convince the others about all their possibilities and competences; they resign and lead a retired life. Fortunately, some of the strongest personalities manage to go on and to integrate in the university or on the labour market. However, this is only given to a small minority, and therefore we should avoid this whole painful story, which reminds us of ‘the survival of the fittest’.
Out of a scientific point of view, we can quote many sources, which state that integration is necessary in order to develop the child’s intelligence, character and social abilities. The idea, I mentioned earlier, that a pupil has to develop at his own tempo, was built upon the reasoning that development is maturing of the innate mental capacities. Nevertheless, today it becomes each time more obvious that this development is an extremely complex interaction between hereditary characteristics and social environment. General intelligence is undoubtedly linked with its stimulation by the surroundings. While this constructive correlation is an indisputable fact concerning the evolution of the personality and social behaviour, it turns out that either intelligence results from more than just hereditary factors. This is the so-called ‘ecological model of development’. In the same sphere, we can take the edge of the argument which says that an impaired child will slow down the rhythm of the normal lessons, for, on the contrary, the pupil is encouraged by his environment and therefore follows at the same speed; this fact was confirmed by several UNESCO studies.
A child that is brought up as a ‘handicapped person’consequently creates a similar social identity, which means that it requires more help and that it is more passive. Of course, although the chance is less big in the integrated system, a pupil also runs this risk and that’s why the inclusion should be supervised very conscientiously. Among sighted youngsters, a blind or partially sighted student learns that his needs cannot be always satisfied at once, that he has to show consideration for the others, that he has to adapt in the ‘normal world’. On the other hand, his classmates learn to appreciate and to respect physical differences and deviating life styles; this last important part is often neglected, because we do not realize enough that many prejudices are born out of the ignorance of our childhood. A sighted person who has already had disabled friends during his youth, will never discriminate for example impaired colleagues in his professional life. So, it is an enrichment on both sides, as they will understand better Bertrand Russell’s words: “Individuality brings differences and uniformity means death.”
Apparently, some structural arrangements were required in Belgium in order to switch over to an integrated education, given the reality in many other countries demonstrated that maintaining both systems – special and inclusive – charges too much the funds, which are allocated to education. Concretely, it means that, if we opt for integration, we have to do it radically, for it is an illusion to leave the choice up to the parents and the children, to think that we can offer them several options.
Now we will concentrate on the question how we can implement all preceding theory? For instance, let us have a look to the adapted materials which a visually disabled student needs. Considering the notion ‘partially sighted’is extremely difficult to define, as there are so many different types and gradations, each specific case should be examined by a specialist, so that the child receives the correct glasses, lenses or magnifiers. However, also for them the computer constitutes the biggest aid, just like it does for the blind youngsters. There is mainly one piece of equipment which a blind person uses, and that’s the so called ‘braille display’; this line, which is an integral part of a box, connected to and put under the keyboard of a normal PC, reproduces the text, which is on the screen, in braille. By means of some particular software Windows, the Internet and many applications are accessible for the braille reader. This technical revolution implies many significant consequences, as there are that the teacher does not have to know braille anymore, because he can just follow on the screen what his pupil is writing, and that the child itself obtains access to many sources of information.
The school books have to be transposed into a readable form for both groups, respectively large print and braille or digital format. A few specialized centres are charged with this job of treating and nowadays scanning the books.
Next point directly concerns the teaching staff, as they often raise the objections that integration would bring a loss of jobs in the special education and that it would compel the teachers in usual education to retrain. Both statements are unfounded, seeing only the methods of working are changed, nothing else. Practically, the situation is as follows: A specialist – an educator out of a special school – meets his student who has integrated in the usual system during four hours a week in order to help the child with any kind of problem and to support the class teacher through for example the conversion of additional tasks or tests into braille or large print. The special education system does not disappear, owing to the fact that it can apply itself to children with more demanding needs as physiotherapy. So, what is asked from a usual teacher is just some good will to try, to accept the challenge, to be open-minded towards such new ideas. For the special educator, the one and only difference consists of, instead of teaching the children in a closed society, guiding them in an open world.
To conclude this chapter, we should deal with the financial part of the issue, as this might seem the most difficult obstacle to surpass. However, the whole project does not cost more than the old structure, given it is possible to spend the money saved on buildings and maintenance in the special education, on the extra equipment as braille displays. Further on, the pupils’transport is much cheaper, as a result of the fact that they do not have to travel a long distance to reach the special concentration centre, when they go to the local school. The expenses for the staff and the books do not increase, as I explained earlier. The government, or more specifically the Ministry of Education, had to establish other priorities, put all available means to use in order that we could choose a new direction, the new road to inclusion.
I am born in the beginning of the eighties, so this is the generation which passed through all the structural changes, and which saw the essential turning point in the nineties when Belgium gave up the old system and the GON-project (Dutch abbreviation for Integrated Education) definitively took off. During primary education, I attended a school for visually disabled children, and from my twelfth year on, I went to a usual college; that’s why I am able to compare one to the other. Although I was extremely well-prepared for the future and I had a wonderful teacher in my primary school, I felt never happy in this place where my social contacts were restricted to the area of the institute. We must not underestimate the difficulties, which a youngster meets with, when his classmates are much older than him, and this is many times the case in such a specialized environment. Nevertheless, when I think about my secondary education, I cannot say that it was all roses there, but still I enjoyed its atmosphere much more. As you grow with the others from the beginning on, they accept you as you are, forgetting the disability. My whole life has changed since that remarkable moment, and there the roots lie of my later evolution and personality.
I experienced there is almost no limit that’s beyond your strength; what you need is the will to reach your goal, to go on without hesitation. And in consequence, the answer is not long in coming: Nearly all of my teachers in the usual education reacted very positively. I was able to follow each subject perfectly, given even figures for maths and physics can be treated, once transposed on a particular kind of paper and heated in an oven, to make the black lines tangible. I joined every activity during physical education, and if there was exceptionally an exercise impossible to participate in like basketball or tennis, I practiced some other sport like power training or whatever.
Indeed, we should be realistic and contemplate the potential problems too. However, let us not exaggerate them, as they are only practically unpleasant and no fundamental hindrances. As many other visually disabled youngsters, for several years I received my braille books much too late. That is not really amazing, if you take the huge number of applications in consideration, which the responsible centres have to deal with in a short period, namely the beginning of the school year. After a while, you know the tricks of the trade, and you do not bother anymore about such events. Last year, at university the solution came itself, because many of my professors could give me their courses in electronic format, which avoids a lot of work. This reasoning is also the cornerstone of an Italian agreement of 2001 which provides that the editors deliver their school books immediately in digital format to the braille printing centres; in this way, a lot of scanning is prevented.
I would like to accentuate that the most wonderful aspect of my integrated life is the social contacts, which I built up, passing over the walls of my school. In leisure time, I went out with my sighted classmates, did some sports with them; in brief I have led a usual life. Fortunately, my environment offered me the magnificent opportunity to discover this unknown outside, and I seized it with both hands. But often I am afraid that I still belong to the happy few.
In Belgium the integrated education supports already more than thousand students in the primary, secondary and higher cycles. Though in many other countries pilot projects are started up and the first attempts are made, still a lot of initiative will be required, if they really want to take the plunge. Many members of the concerned groups – teachers, parents and children – entertain doubts about the final result of inclusion. This scepticism is many times due to a lack of information, and that’s why we have to continue the discussion and to convince them that their hesitation is based upon false truths.
Probably only in twenty years there will be an inclusive education system in most EU-member countries, and that means another generation which has to bear the social consequences of its exclusion. So, the time presses. We must create the awareness of this issue among those who are directly involved in this transformation, because the first necessary foundation is the will to realize it, and this affects on the one hand the educating staff but also on the other the families and the children themselves.
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Laatst bijgewerkt op 1 oktober 2015 – 10:56