Wilma Lawrie says that fully inclusive education for the disabled must be a right in law.
Inclusive education is an approach that says that all pupils who have a disability, or who experience difficulties in learning, should have the same rights to be members of their local school as all other pupils. It is controversial in that some parents prefer special schools or units and worry that mainstream schools are advocated for cost-saving reasons. But how many of those directly involved in education, as professionals or elected members of local authorities, understand its meaning and appreciate its impact on young people? Disabled people should be part of our school communities and receive an education and be socially included according to their age, needs, ability and aptitude.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Unesco's Salamanca Statement and the UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities all provide a framework to develop inclusion and disability equality policies, and stress that the disabled be educated in integrated settings. As more education authorities travel down the road of integration in mainstream schools, consideration must be given to take this further by developing inclusive schools. Integration is not enough.
What right do I have to say this? As a "special school survivor", a teacher and disability equality trainer I have always felt it wrong that I and thousands of other people with disabilities are still forced into the segregated school system (or are being segregated in their local mainstream school). I believe that non-disabled people are being discriminated against by not being able to mix socially and academically with disabled youngsters; that our mainstream school population of today is made up of the employers of tomorrow. If disabled and non-disabled young people are segregated, it becomes obvious why so many disabled members of our community are unemployed, failed by society and excluded from being full, participating and valued members of that society.
Last summer I travelled widely in North America on a Churchill Fellowship to study inclusion in mainstream high schools. I met many individuals and groups who are spearheading inclusion nationally or in their local communities, including President Clinton's adviser and assistant secretary in special education. Inclusion is recognised as a civil right and is enforced by statute: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Scotland, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not apply to compulsory school education and effectively reinforces the discrimination faced by the disabled.
By reallocating resources from segregated schools to supporting the same youngsters appropriately and adequately in the mainstream system, we may perhaps stimulate appropriate anti-discrimination and civil rights legislation. And by investing money in research to look at inclusive models, strategies of effective teaching and methodology will develop.
Inclusion depends on a change in school culture and ethos, by adapting the curriculum, the buildings, language, images and role models. In North America many schools fully include youngsters in all aspects of the curriculum with appropriate support, and also involve disabled adults in making decisions. The influence and potential of disabled teachers must be recognised, teacher education institutions should be actively encouraging disabled people to enter the teaching profession, employers should be providing training and opportunities for promotion. This issue is not entirely about providing positive role models. Change will occur when disabled people are directing education programmes and policies.
In this country it is important for parents to know their rights and the rights of their child, and be prepared to work in collaboration with organisations of disabled people and their local schools, to facilitate change and build bridges between schools and communities. Parents for Inclusion and the Alliance for Inclusive Education have developed three-day workshops for parents to help them differentiate between the medical model goals (of therapy) and social model goals (of empowerment) and to be able to set their own objectives as allies to their children, rather than as "agents of the oppression". These workshops are delivered by a network of partnership trainers (a disabled disability equality trainer and a parent) throughout the UK.
It must be recognised that it is not inclusionary for schools to build ramps, for instance, and then have no expectations that people with disabilities will play a meaningful role in society. Schools should be encouraged to carry out access audits, and not only by looking at the environmental barriers preventing full inclusion. Attitudinal barriers play a major role in making inclusion work, and where staff acknowledge their own personal and professional attitudes to disabled people and disability issues generally, they are at the beginning of a road which will lead them to making a difference to their own lives and in their workplace.
The impact of inclusion was brought home to me on my return to Scotland, where I am far more aware of disabled people being looked upon as objects of pity, fear, ignorance and intolerance. In schools that supposedly "integrate", I see young people with disabilities "there" but not being fully involved. They go to the library for extra study or leave early rather than going to PE, they sit isolated at break times and in classes, are on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse from their peers, and schools allow this to happen because they are not "aware of any problems" or are not sure how to address the underlying issues.
We must recognise as a profession that disabled children who are segregated become adults who will continue to be segregated in later life. When young people with disabilities leave their "special" school, there is no special needs world out there, there are no special needs supermarkets. Education authorities must place more emphasis in information made available to parents on the rights to a mainstream education rather than stress the availability of "special schools".
In one failing Boston school after the appointment of a headteacher who believed in inclusion and welcomed disabled youngsters, children without disabilities improved their performance in national tests by 30 per cent in maths and in reading by 18 per cent. There is currently a lengthy waiting list for enrolment. My personal goal is to work with education authorities, schools and teacher associations to develop inclusionary practices from an equality and rights perspective, and to support moves to train disabled people as inclusion facilitators and consultants to work with families and schools and to advise in the development of effective strategies.
Teacher associations are increasingly coming to recognise the importance of inclusion - the Educational Institute of Scotland, for instance, adopted a disability equality policy in 1995. These important developments must continue. As a result of inclusion, socialisation and evolution take place. Inclusive schools, as opposed to schools that integrate, must become the norm in British society and disabled people must be directly involved in that process.
Wilma Lawrie was a Churchill Fellow last year. She is a disabled teacher and a disability equality trainer.