‘No excuse’ to segregate pupils with disabilities

Pioneering researcher tells World Down Syndrome Congress that all children benefit from fully inclusive education

‘No excuse’ to segregate pupils with disabilities

There is “no excuse” for segregated education on the basis of disability, according to a world-leading expert on Down’s syndrome.

Professor Sue Buckley called for “full inclusion, right from the start” when she addressed the World Down Syndrome Congress in Glasgow.

“There’s no excuse – an inclusive education model is best for all children, so we all need to fight for that change,” she said. “Segregation on the basis of disability is not acceptable in terms of human rights, social identity, social learning, education or developmental outcomes.”

The emeritus professor of developmental disability at the University of Portsmouth said that “children learn from other children” and that there should be “full inclusion right from the start” so that, in class, children with Down’s syndrome feel “I belong – I’m not a visitor”.

Professor Buckley said: “Development isn’t fixed at birth, however many chromosomes you have. The brain’s ready to do all sorts of wonderful things, but what it will actually do, and what the child will learn, will depend on the learning environment around them, and their opportunities to learn. So, yes, it is influenced by genetic make-up, but [also] very profoundly influenced by social and learning environments.”

In 2016, Professor Buckley received an award from the US-based National Down Syndrome Congress, “for improving the lives of children with Down syndrome by developing innovative research-based education techniques”. Many of these have focused on reading and she told the congress in Glasgow that studies show “when children with Down syndrome are fully included in mainstream education…they have better-spoken language and they’re more likely to learn to read”.

She added that spoken language should be on the curriculum from the earliest stages of education and that there was still considerable progress to be made as “many teenagers could significantly improve their spoken language”.

Professor Buckley began her career as a clinical psychologist working with people with intellectual disabilities at a time before children with Down’s syndrome had a right to go to school, and when they were routinely described as having a “mental handicap” or even a “subnormality” – rather than people understanding that Down’s syndrome “just meant they didn’t meet their milestones at the same rate as everyone else”.

She adopted a baby with Down’s syndrome from one of these institutions and pioneered early intervention services and inclusive education – as well as founding the charity Down Syndrome Education International – but faced hostility along the way.

In 1983, she produced a video about her research into how children’s with Down’s syndrome could be helped to learn to read, and recalled: “I got hate mail. How dare I suggest children with Down Syndrome might learn to read?” Her department head even had to field a call from an education official calling for her to be sacked.

The World Down Syndrome Congress, which takes place every two years, is being held in Scotland for the first time and concludes tomorrow. Professor Buckley praised the “huge efforts on inclusive education being made here in Scotland”.

Updates on the congress can be found via the Twitter hashtag #WDSC2018.

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