Welcome to e-include, the e-journal of Inclusion Europe.
From the speech of Anna Nilsson, Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe. Europe in Action 2008: Education for All!
Working as an advisor to the Commissioner for Human Rights, I help the Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg in his everyday work. This includes identifying human rights problems in Europe, and discussing these problems with governments. As well as this, many reports are written making recommendations to the governments of Europe on how they can improve the lives of EU citizens.
Inclusive education is a subject very close to the heart of the Commissioner's priorities, covering both the right to education and the inclusion of persons with disabilities.
Last year Commissioner Hammarberg was in Austria to discuss the issues affecting people with disabilities with the Austrian government. He recommended that schools were made more accessible and that an effort was made to combat negative attitudes against persons with disabilities amongst employers. Focusing his visit on the Oeverseegymnasium the Commissioner pushed for change. The result was a promise to make the school fully accessible in 2012, which I urge you to follow-up on.
Human rights of people with disabilities are protected by various legislation. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an important document, and I am sure I won't be the only person to discuss it today. The Commissioner has always backed the ratification and implementation of this document.
In reference to the European legal context, the most famous European Human Rights document is the European Convention for Human Rights. The question hangs 'how does this document relate to inclusive education?' The Convention clearly states:
"No person shall be denied the right to education."
This means that the states must provide education to everybody. Nobody can be considered "unteachable" and excluded from school. That is a violation of the Convention. However, the Convention does not remark upon the quality of education, nor does it say how the education must be organised.
Currently in the European Court of Human Rights, there is a case about 'special schools'. The case is about Roma children who went to schools for persons with intellectual disabilities. The Court concluded that this was a case of discrimination. The Roma children may have special needs, however the school for children with intellectual disabilities does not help them, therefore they should be mainstreamed. The judgement is useful as it is the first step in recognising that segregated education is discrimination. However, it makes no clear stand on segregated education, that ordinary education should meet the needs of all children.
The next EU legal document protecting against discrimination is the European Social Charter which states that action must be taken to provide education 'in the framework of general schemes' wherever possible. If that is not possible, states should provide education through specialised bodies. The Committee on Social Rights interpreted what this meant in the case Autism Europe v. France. The case is about the French education system. In France children with disabilities could choose if they wanted to go to ordinary or special classes. However, only a small number of autistic children went to ordinary classes, and the special classes could not cope with remaining majority. The Committee said that states must take legal and practical measures to provide education for all, and criticised France for not implementing the legislation properly.
Another complaint currently facing the Committee was received from the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), who complained about children with intellectual disabilities living in institutions in Bulgaria do not receive any education at all. In 2002 Bulgaria changed its policy and began providing education, however, as late as 2007 only 6% of the children went to school. The government has responded to MDAC's complaint by claiming that including these children is part of a process that cannot occur overnight. The Committee has yet to make a decision on this case.
The most recent document is the 'Action Plan' to promote rights and full participation of people with disabilities in Europe. This document was developed in parallel with the UN Convention, the idea being that it could be used as a tool in implementing the Convention. It includes measures that governments and local politicians can take to change society to make it more accessible for persons with disabilities. One part of the Action Plan is focused on education. Education is the key to independence. In order to fully participate in society as a worker, or a citizen, education must work to combat negative attitudes against persons with disabilities. In order to accomplish this it says states should:
- Develop a unified education system. The goal should be full inclusion of persons with disabilities.
- Everybody should receive the support they need. So called special education should be an exception, and only used when ordinary schools do not have the resources to meet a person's needs.
- Politicians should take action to make ordinary schools accessible to everyone.
- Teachers and other staff should be trained to teach and support people with differing needs.
- Everybody should have an individual education plan.
- Textbooks should be easy to read and understand.
- Buildings should be accessible for persons who use wheelchairs or who are blind or deaf.
In conclusion, I urge everyone present to use these standards to advocate for change in your home countries. Approach teachers, politicians and other decision-makers. Use the knowledge that exists in your organisations. If the national system does not work, you can look at the possibility of turning to the European Committee on Social Rights or the European Court in Strasbourg. Still, very few cases about education of people with disabilities have been brought before both the Committee and the Court.