The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities today held a day of general discussion on the right to education of persons with disabilities. Experts from the United Nations as well as self-advocates, representatives of States and non-governmental organizations, and members of academia made statements and engaged in dialogues on the challenges in implementing an inclusive education system and made proposals for a draft General Comment on the right to education.
Lenin Moreno, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Disabilities and Accessibility, opening the meeting, read from Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was on education. Inclusion had to become a crucial part of society and inclusive education had to start with children with disabilities attending the same classroom as children who did not have disabilities. The Special Envoy said a General Comment on the right to education would be of great importance for the future for society as a whole.
In a panel discussion on inclusive and quality education systems in law and policies, speakers emphasized that students with disabilities could not be targeted for exclusion from schools on the basis of their disability and considered whether the general comment should include guidance on the elements of the transforming plan to move progressively from integration systems to inclusive systems. Legislation needed to ensure that schools were prevented from selecting the students they admitted, and students were able to exercise their right to attend a mainstream school, said a speaker. The vital need to empower parents and liberate them from the chains of popular thought that children with disabilities were a burden was emphasized.
In a panel discussion on non-exclusion on the basis of disability, reasonable accommodation and access to inclusive education systems, panellists agreed on the need to focus on the entire life-cycle of education. Teachers were vital role models and the diversity desired in the student population should be reflected in the teacher population, a speaker said. Segregated education led to segregated employment and discrimination in the labour market, commented another. States could not afford to operate two systems of education – segregated and mainstream – and should opt for one good inclusive system, it was said, and it had to be recognized that there were political and cultural aspects to inclusive education.
In a panel discussion on support for inclusion in the general education system and individualized support measures, speakers recalled the motto of the disability community “nothing about us without us” and said ‘inclusive education’ had to be clearly defined in the general comment. Speakers agreed that inclusive education was best for all students because learning together taught students to value diversity, build social capital and lay the foundation for inclusive communities. The need to empower the frontline – to teach the teachers – was discussed, and the need to utilize the expertise of children with disabilities, as they negotiated the challenges related to their disability on a daily basis.
In concluding remarks, Barbara Bailey, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, proposed that the general comment explicitly addressed the risk of violence faced by women and girls with disabilities, paid attention to the preparation of persons with disabilities for meaningful engagement in paid work, and contained clear strategies for dismantling stereotypes.
Jorge Cardona, member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in concluding remarks said States were obliged to change their educational systems from one that tried to make all children the same, to a system that recognized that all children were different. It was vital to pay attention to the views of children, who were well aware that children with disabilities were being discriminated against and demanding that they be included. He also said it was unacceptable that persons with disabilities were only represented by one Committee: the United Nations not only had to have a gender perspective across the system, but a disability perspective as well.
Maria Soledad Cisternas, Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said the Committee had longed to draft a general comment on the right to education for persons with disability, looking at the root causes and the necessity of inclusive education, the legal and practical aspects, and the need for awareness raising. She emphasized that the Convention was not an island in the human rights system but rather an integrated and crucial part of the human rights framework.
The panellists included the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education; as well as representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Committee on the Rights of the Child, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, International Labour Organization, Inclusion International, International Disability Alliance, Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture, World Federation of the Deaf, National University of Ireland, World of Inclusion/Disabled People International, South Africa Council for the Blind, Asociacion Azul Argentina, In1School, Human Rights Watch, Disabled People’s Organization Denmark.
The following States took the floor in today’s dialogue: Thailand, Norway, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay and Tajikistan. Representatives of the Council of Europe, World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, Down’s Syndrome International, Autism Alliance, Down’s Syndrome Australia and self-advocates also spoke.
Today’s public meeting was webcast live and can be watched via the following link: http://www.treatybodywebcast.org. Many of the statements delivered today, along with related documentation, are available on the Committee’s webpage.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place on Friday, 17 April, when it will conclude its thirteenth session. Summaries of the Committee’s public meetings, including consideration of country reports, are available here.
LENIN MORENO, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Disabilities and Accessibility, opened the meeting by reading parts of Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on education. Inclusion had to become a crucial part of society and inclusive education had to start with children with disabilities attending the same classroom as children who did not have disabilities. The Special Envoy emphasized the need to draw on experience. He said the General Comment would be of great importance for the future of society as a whole. They all wanted to see all of their children grow within an inclusive environment without any exception.
MARIA SOLEDAD CISTERNAS REYES, Chairperson of the Committee, said today’s meeting was a landmark day for education in the twenty-first century. She welcomed all of the participants and introduced the panel.
IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director, Human Rights Treaties Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomed on behalf of High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein all participants to the discussion which had been jointly organized by the Committee and the Office, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund. That more than 80 written submissions had been received for today’s event represented an extraordinary level of engagement. The situation of persons with disabilities had been woven through the texts of the 17 draft Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular in Goal 4, which called for equal access at all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities. There was more to be done, said Mr. Salama, but they were in a strong position as they moved towards the September 2015 Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York. Today’s event was the start of the elaboration of a Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ General Comment on inclusive education, which would provide authoritative guidance to States parties and other stakeholders. A good percentage of the world’s experts on the issue of inclusive education were in the room today, he said, hoping that the discussions would move beyond the challenges to durable, rights-based solutions.
CATELINA DEVADAS, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said while considerable efforts had been made to elaborate the concept of inclusive education in theoretical terms, many States faced difficulties in translating the concept into practical and concrete measures to establish a truly inclusive education system, where children with disabilities exercised the right to education on an equal basis with others. States and other stakeholders would benefit from the development of strategic guidance on inclusive education, said the Special Rapporteur, identifying possible elements for inclusion in such guidance. States should enforce a “no rejection” policy clearly spelt out in law which ensured all children received education in mainstream schools. Education systems must move away from an approach requiring children with disabilities to adapt to the needs of mainstream schools to one in which the education system adjusted and responded to the needs of all children. One of the reasons that universal primary education was not fully achieved in the Millennium Development Goals was that persons with disabilities were not included and the post-2015 development agenda provided a space to redress that major gap, she emphasized.
KISHORE SINGH, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, said a General Comment would go a long way in addressing many of the challenges faced by States in implementing inclusive education. An inclusive system of education that addressed the needs of all children, whatever their abilities or disabilities, was required. At the outset, all legal and technical barriers to realizing the right to education must be removed. It remained the obligation of States parties to give full effect to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Special Rapporteur listed requirements to implement inclusion which he said included assessments of special educational needs, the adaptation of curricula as required, the use of technology and the provision of specialized training for educators. States must develop national legislation which ensured access to technical and vocational training for persons with disabilities. The proposed General Comment should provide full guidance to States and should include examples of best practice, he added.
BARBARA BAILEY, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said in the global population the divide between male and female was the most dominant axis of differentiation and inequality, and that was no less true for the disabled population. Girls with disabilities were a diverse group whose educational needs had largely gone unnoticed by those committed to promoting gender or disability equality. Other interlocking hierarchies that determined access to educational resources included the ‘type’ of disability, the economic status of the family, ethnicity and whether the location was rural or urban. Challenges included boy preference for schooling, the engagement of girls in the domestic care economy, the lack of suitable infrastructure and the hidden costs of schooling. Ms. Bailey emphasized that the General Comment must include clearly-defined core indicators and methods for gathering disaggregated data that would allow States parties to draft and deliver education inclusion plans, set realistic targets and measure process.
JORGE CARDONA, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said the right to inclusive education could be discussed under the frameworks of many United Nations human rights instruments including the Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Rights of the Child, Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Elimination of Discrimination against Migrant Workers and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The main barriers raised during the Committee’s country reviews were a lack of understanding and differentiation between physical, sensory and mental disabilities. The lack of resources – infrastructure, human and economic – was a further barrier and inclusive education was often seen as a luxury for States. Another barrier, mostly seen in developed countries, was the insistence on the right of parents to freely choose between inclusive and segregated education for the child, which compromised the right of the child to inclusive education and prioritized the interests of the parent above the right of the child. Competitive education systems which ranked schools and separated children according to ability at a very young age, sometimes as young as 10, were contrary to the right to inclusive education and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Interactive Panel Discussion 1 – on inclusive and quality education systems in law and policies
MIA FARAH, Self-Advocate, Inclusion International, Middle East and North Africa, spoke about her schooling in Lebanon where she was prevented from learning Arabic because she had an intellectual disability, and there was no legal protection. Ms. Farah described her dream of a Lebanon where public schools were open to persons with intellectual disabilities, official exams were modified and accessible and specialized teacher training was provided, resulting in benefits for all students and the visibility of persons with intellectual disabilities in society. Since the deterioration of the security situation in Lebanon, the authorities said they had no money to pay for inclusive education, said Ms. Farah. She asked a number of questions about whether the right to education was linked to peace, why persons with disabilities were the first group affected during disasters, and how to meet the needs of refugee children with disabilities. How many generations of persons with disabilities had been lost, asked Ms. Farah.
MARYANNE DIAMOND, Chair, International Disability Alliance, spoke about approaches that should be taken in law and policy to implement inclusive education. Recognition that quality education was inclusive education and benefited all children and community members was essential. A legally-enforceable law which recognized the right to inclusive education was required. Schools should be prevented from selecting the students they admitted, and students should be able to exercise their right to attend a mainstream school. Teacher training on inclusive education must be compulsory, and public financing ensured. The accessibility of education must be inscribed in general accessibility plans and general and individual measures of support must be made available, said Ms. Diamond, a practical example of which would be the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty. Ms. Diamond noted that the International Disability Alliance was holding a side event at 1 p.m. in Room XXII on the perspective of women and girls with disabilities and the right to education. In conclusion she said “Education is not about life, education is life itself”.
PHILIPPE TESTOT-FERRY, Senior Regional Advisor for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said it was imperative that inclusive education was understood to be more than an obligation – it was a smart investment that benefitted all children. While many States claimed to have inclusive legislation and policies, along with good intentions and political will, those attempts had failed because they were restrictive. By thinking of children with disabilities as the sole beneficiaries of inclusive education the outlook was restricted and immediately condemned children with disabilities to seclusion and exclusion within the walls of mainstream schools. UNICEF conceptualized inclusive education as the synergy of three elements: the right to access to education, the right to quality education and the safeguard of respect for rights within education. Teachers were critical agents of change and should be empowered to implement measures aimed at increasing student participation in education.
ROSA BLANCO, Director, Chile Office, Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture, spoke about progress in normative terms throughout Latin America, where all countries had ratified the Convention, and 13 States had ratified the Optional Protocol, but highlighted the large gap between intent and the implementation of meaningful education. Barriers included the lack of information for persons with disabilities. The data available showed that persons with disabilities were the most excluded group in Latin America. The right of schools to select the children attending was discriminatory, excluding children which could reduce the school’s academic ranking, such as exam results, which meant that State schools had a higher proportion of children with special educational needs who were often wrestling with serious situations of poverty. It was important to adopt a common curriculum for all students instead of a special curriculum for children with disabilities. It was important that all children in mainstream education were enrolled in the same way as any other child, as had recently been implemented in Mexico. Quota systems with targets for schools to incorporate numbers of children with disabilities should be considered.
RABJYOT SINGH KOHLI, Self-Advocate, introduced himself as a 17-year-old student currently studying ‘Commerce with Maths’ in the twelfth grade at St Mary’s School in New Delhi, India. He said he used a wheelchair and had a physical disability which included deformities to his limbs. St Mary’s School had practiced inclusion for 50 years, said Mr. Kohli, emphasizing the great need to empower parents and liberate them from the chains of popular thought that children with disabilities were a burden. Many children like me, said Mr. Kohli, were forced to stay at home throughout their lives because their parents were embarrassed to take them out. It was the responsibility of all States parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to ensure that when a child with a disability was born the parents would accept the child with an open heart rather than being sad and depressed. An empowered, informed parent could make a child and a sad, disempowered parent could break that same child, he said. Despite having such a supportive family and school, Mr. Kohli said he was at a loss about what to do once he completed the twelfth grade because his decisions could only be based on the facilities available to him. They must focus on how to make inclusive education a reality around the world, he concluded.
Thailand said inclusive education should not be viewed as a standalone issue: it must be ensured that after completing education persons with disabilities could enter the labour market into good and dignified jobs, with infrastructure that allowed access to workplaces. Norway said it recently ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and spoke about its inclusive education aims, accessibility funding, the use of new technologies, and its overseas aid for education. Norway called for data collection on children with disabilities to be incorporated into the sustainable development goals. Ecuador said including children with disabilities into mainstream education would be enriching for society as a whole. The process was not just about adopting legal frameworks but fostering the specific needs of every child.
Mexico spoke of its efforts to implement an inclusive education and to meet the special educational needs of children with disabilities, and asked about the challenges in allocating financial resources to that end. Argentina said given references to a lack of quantitative data globally, its 2012 census showed there were five million citizens with impairments which accounted for 13 per cent of the population. Of those five per cent were in education. It asked how countries with private education systems could ensure accessibility. Paraguay spoke about its new law which prohibited limits to participation and discriminatory measures and was compulsory applied to both State and private educational facilities. Paraguay asked for examples of best practices of the implementation of inclusive education models. Tajikistan said it had made significant changes to uphold the rights of persons with disabilities over recent years, including a 2010 law on social protection and a 2011 law on protection for persons with disabilities.
World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry said the practice emanating from wealthy countries of forcing children to take psychiatric drugs in order to attend school must cease, as it negatively impacted on the development and future health of children. World Federation of the Deaf said the various terms including ‘integrated environment’, ‘mainstream settings’ and ‘inclusive education’ were problematic because mainstreaming was not the same thing as inclusive education.
Response and Concluding Remarks by Panellists
PHILIPPE TESTOT-FERRY, Senior Regional Advisor for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), responding to questions on good practices, said several countries had overcome barriers to inclusive education, notably in changing social and cultural norms, such as Montenegro where the national campaign ‘It’s About Ability’ had made real changes. Other countries had made progress in reducing the number of children who were institutionalized. Slow progress was also being made by some countries in reforming their statistical data collection in order to know more about their children with disabilities.
THERESIA DEGENER, Member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Moderator of the Panel, thanked the panellists and all participants for their statements. Inclusive education was about rights and not charity, it was about quality education. Persons with disabilities were not a burden but were rights holders.
Interactive Panel Discussion 2 – Non-Exclusion on the basis of disability, reasonable accommodation and access to inclusive education systems
DIANE RICHLER, former President, Inclusion International, said the organization was a network of over 200 family-based organizations with national members in 115 countries working to promote the rights of persons with intellectual disabilities. Inclusive education was better for all students because learning together taught students to value diversity, build social capital and lay the foundation for inclusive communities. They needed to learn lessons from other success stories, said Ms. Richler, noting that a disproportionate amount of money was spent on assessment rather than on teaching and learning. As long as special programmes existed systems would find people to fill them. Governments could not afford to fund two systems – one segregated and another inclusive – the only way they could afford the costs of inclusion was by phasing out segregated systems and investing in the transformations needed.
MARKKU JOKINEN, Honorary President of the World Federation of the Deaf, communicating through sign language, said traditionally deaf students had been categorized as students in special education, despite organizations of deaf people all over the world advocating for the education of deaf students to be based on linguistic and cultural aspects – bilingual and bicultural education – not special or segregated education. Multilingual and multicultural education was needed to respond to the linguistic needs and culturally diverse background of students through the engagement of diversity of teachers with disabilities, deaf teachers, teachers with indigenous backgrounds and other intersecting identities. Teachers were vital role models and the diversity that they wanted to see in the student population should be reflected in the teacher population, said Mr. Jokinen. He described two bilingual schools in Belgium and Hong Kong which taught two languages and sign language to deaf and hearing students in the same class.
ELLIS JONGERIUS, Self-Advocate from the Netherlands, said she worked at the Dutch self-advocacy organization LFB. She made three calls with regard to non-exclusion: that persons with disabilities were allowed extra time to finish their school courses and those academic courses were adapted to the students’ individual needs. That schools consider opportunities for students to participate in society, especially in the labour force, and make sure education helped them to achieve that. And finally, that schools offered a good mix between theory and practice, as students with intellectual disabilities did not only want to learn from books but wanted to learn by doing.
HENRIETTE SANDVOORT, Self-Advocate from the Netherlands, said she worked at the Dutch self-advocacy organization LFB. The fact that people with disabilities needed more support and adaptation should not be a reason to exclude them, said Ms. Sandvoort. It was important that schools offered extra time and lessons in subjects that may be difficult for some students with disabilities. Teachers should learn more about how to teach people with intellectual disabilities through training. Ms. Sandvoort also spoke about cases of bullying of persons with intellectual disabilities, for example being scolded for ‘being stupid’ because they could not learn quickly, something she had experienced herself. It was important that such bullying was prevented and that persons with disabilities were welcomed in schools.
RENATO OPERTTI, Programme Specialist, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said inclusion continued to be viewed through a lens of ‘normalcy’ and how to adjust schools and curricula to that model. The diversity of children had to be a factor which democratized education. Children had to be seen as a diverse body rather than individual atomized children. They had to move from individualized curricula to common curricula which included aspects that supported the needs of every individual. There was a great deal of fear and a great lack of understanding in society with regard to the value added by diversity and inclusion. People wondered what ‘inclusiveness’ meant for their children. It had to be recognized that there were political and cultural aspects to inclusive education, said Mr. Opertti, and they were fundamental issues that the United Nations had to take into account. Every child had to be given a personalized ability to learn and that required a holistic vision.
SHIVAN QUINLIVAN, Professor, National University of Ireland, Galway, said the term or concept of ‘inclusive education’ was not defined within the Convention and in reality for many countries was better understood in its breach than in its observance. The lack of a clear definition meant what was often described as ‘inclusive’ was not always desirable. As an example Professor Quinlivan spoke about the education system of Ireland which despite many reforms, particularly in resource allocation for students with disabilities, remained outwardly inclusive but inwardly exclusionary and arguably discriminatory. Professor Quinlivan also raised the issue of school and university rankings which she said often mitigated against inclusive educational practices. To challenge systematic educational discrimination there was a need for incentives for equality that targeted ranking systems to make academic institutions want to achieve equality because it was in their own interest.
FACUNDO CHAVEZ PENILLAS, Human Rights and Disability Advisor, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR supported a systematic approach to the right to education where all students were equally valued and recognized as substantive contributors to the educational process irrespective of their social condition, gender, sex, ethnic origin, nationality or impairment. The best way to realize that right for all students was through inclusive education systems. Mr. Penillas spoke about the non-rejection clause in Article 24 of the Convention which stated that students with disabilities must not be rejected from general education on the basis of disability. The non-rejection clause was applicable on an individual basis and was not subjected to reasonableness tests, he commented. Mr. Penillas also spoke about the duty of States to provide reasonable accommodation to realize the right to education.
GOPAL MITRA, Rapporteur and Programme Specialist, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said reasonable accommodation was a key policy option to enhance access to education for children with disabilities. As an example, Mr. Mitra spoke of the need to give children with disabilities extra time for assessments, which in many countries was applied in an arbitrary or unreasonable way. Although action had to be taken at the policy level it was at the point of delivery, the school, where reasonable accommodation had a real impact. For example, he said new technologies and mobile devices were emerging as a key learning tool for children with disabilities but teachers often did not allow their use in the classroom. Mr. Mitra spoke about access to appropriate learning materials for children with disabilities and said UNICEF was calling for innovations to transform the way early-reading books and learning materials were developed and distributed in accessible formats, and for standardized norms to convert printed text books into digital formats such as sign language video books.
Council of Europe detailed two complaints against Member States regarding the right to inclusive education; one related to children with intellectual disabilities in Bulgaria and one concerning children with autistic spectrum disorder in France. The two cases provoked the Council of Europe to make a recommendation on inclusive education, and the Council welcomed the Committee’s forthcoming general comment on the issue. A self-advocate and member of French organization Autism Alliance spoke about the case of a boy with autism who was accepted into school but forced to sit apart from pupils in another room. Today only 20 per cent of children with autism in France attended mainstream school, she said.
A representative of Down’s syndrome International spoke about the educational experiences of her ten year old daughter, who had Down’s Syndrome, in four countries. In Brazil and the United States she had had access to inclusive education and had learned to read. In Venezuela not one school was prepared to take her. In Switzerland seven international schools and five private schools rejected her; eventually the Swiss authorities placed her in a special school one hour from home. The experience highlighted that resistance to inclusive education was not economic but political.
Interactive Panel Discussion 3 – Support for inclusion in the general education system and individualized support measures
AGNES VAN WIJNEN, Project Manager, In1School, Netherlands, said In1School was a project of the Dutch Association for Children With Disabilities which promoted the right of all children to attend a neighbourhood school. The Netherlands had not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its schools were characterized by exclusion and segregation, with up to 80 per cent of children with disabilities attending special schools. In1School conducted research in the areas of legal opinion, jurisprudence, practice of inclusive education, including co-teaching, peer-to-peer assistance, leadership and curriculum differentiating. The general comment must proclaim the right to inclusive education for all children: no child should be tested to ascertain if they were ‘fit’ to attend a school before being granted access. The general comment should also include a statement on the negative impact of segregated education, to attract attention to the core purpose of education and that the ‘reasonable accommodation’ clause may not be used as an excuse to exclude children.
RICHARD RIESER, World of Inclusion and Disabled People International, said Disabled People International coined the phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ in developing self-advocacy which later became the motto of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It was founded in 1981 to break with medical model organizations in order to establish social model thinking. Mr. Rieser said the wording of Article 24 of the Convention represented the views at that time and today there was an urgent need to clearly define what was meant by inclusive education in order to guide States parties in implementing Article 24. The way teachers were trained had to change to empower them to work with children who were blind or visually impaired, had hearing or speech impairment, autism, mental or physical disability. The best way to do that was to train a school’s staff as a whole with accreditation from a local college or university and give each teacher trained a professional accreditation and a rise in salary. Teachers played a vital role but many around the world were paid terribly and worked in poor conditions.
PAULA HUNT, Senior Inclusive Education Expert, said practical guidance had to focus on the belief, the attitudes, the knowledge and the skills of teachers. Not everybody could be a teacher. Investing in the education of teachers was investing in a country, in social and cultural capital. The right of a child to quality education should not be compromised and teachers and other educators were at the forefront of educational change. Teachers must be provided with the necessary knowledge and skills to differentiate instruction and respond to the needs of individual children, to work cooperatively and creatively, and in child-centred ways. Inclusive education was not about fitting a child with a disability in a mainstream school. It required the full participation of teachers – and children themselves – without which they would continue to fall short in implementing Article 24.
PRAVEENA SUKHRAJ-ELY, Former Deputy Chairperson, South Africa Council for the Blind, said she was nominated to attend the panel discussion by the World Blind Union and would focus on the right to education for persons with visual impairments. Learners with visual impairments were not a homogenous group but had diverse individual educational needs resulting from their particular eye conditions, capabilities and overall personal circumstances. Learners with visual impairments must receive reasonable accommodation during the learning and assessment process, for example blind learners must be allowed to write examinations using the method of their choice, be it braille, orally or using a scribe. The inaccessibility of Braille and large print text books, unaffordability of technological devices, untrained educators and insufficient support specialists were the common experience of visually impaired learners, even in developed countries. The key issue was not where the support services were based but rather that support services must be embedded in inclusion – every possible step to prevent segregation must be taken.
JOAN COBENAS, Associacion Azul, Argentina, speaking with the assistance of an augmented alternative communication system, described his early schooling, saying he attended a special school but did not truly receive an education. When he was six years old the teachers told him that they could not educate him, that there was no suitable pedagogy for a child like him, recalled Mr. Cobenas. Thanks to the efforts of his mother a system of communication was discovered that allowed children with disabilities like his to be educated, and at the age of nine years old he entered a mainstream school in an integrated fashion. The teachers from his early years had put a lot of barriers in his path, which were very humiliating and still made him afraid today. But being taught in the mainstream system had been helpful and enjoyable. Furthermore, his presence in a mainstream school had been beneficial to his classmates, said Mr. Cobenas. Now he studied literature at university and would like to specialize in linguistics to learn more about augmented alternative communication, because without it, and the support of personal assistants in school, he would have not been able to learn. He called for better training for teachers in general, because his teachers had always believed he had the right to be in school and that made everything possible.
ELIN MARTINEZ, Researcher, Human Rights Watch, said some countries claimed near universal enrolment of all children in primary education but research by Human Rights Watch showed that children with disabilities faced very significant barriers and discrimination and represented the largest group of out of school children. Ms. Martinez highlighted two key groups of children who needed far more Government attention. Firstly, children with intellectual and multiple disabilities, who often entered the system late because of the multiple barriers and discrimination they faced, and second adolescents and young adults with disabilities, who had not received quality education on an equal basis with other students or who had dropped out. She spoke about research missions conducted by Human Rights Watch on the right to education for people with disabilities in China, Nepal, Russia, South Africa and the Central African Republic.
SIGNE HOJSTEEN, Representative of Disabled People’s Organizations Denmark, said the Danish education system was currently transitioning from segregated special schools for some children with disabilities to integration in ordinary education for other children with disabilities. Denmark was a wealthy country but although it had spent huge resources on education its wealth had not always been used in the best way, said Ms. Hojsteen. In counselling sessions young persons with disabilities told devastating stories about their schooling, stories of being bullied, loneliness and isolation. They needed to break that evil circle and work systematically to do so, said Ms. Hojsteen. The shared experience of children, with and without disabilities, was that an open atmosphere had to be established where questions, including on uncomfortable areas, could be posed but not disproportionately. Teachers could use systems of peer learning and mentoring not only for learning but also to raise awareness that children with disabilities had competencies and knowledge that may not be seen at first glance. The slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ had to be applied, she concluded.
MARKKU JOKINEN, Honorary President, World Federation of Deaf, took the floor to emphasise the urgent need to define inclusive education and ask what the criteria involved would be. A representative of Down’s Syndrome Australia said she spoke today in her personal capacity as the parent of a child with an intellectual disability. Legal and policy frameworks and jurisdiction appeared to be insufficient, and there were many barriers that continued to entrench the exclusion status quo in Australia.
Interactive Roundtable Dialogue – summaries of the Three Panel Discussions
FACUNDO CHAVEZ, Disability Advisory, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, summarizing the findings of the first panel discussion on inclusive and quality education systems in law and policies, said it was agreed that students with disabilities could not be targeted for exclusion from schools on the basis of their disability, and it was also agreed that a media administration of a needs assessment was not desirable. It was also communicated that children with disabilities should not be conditioned to fulfil medical procedures to exercise their right to education, for example to take psychiatric medication or undergo a form of diagnosis. A question emerging from the panel was whether the general comment should include guidance on the elements of the transforming plan to move progressively from the integration systems to inclusive systems.
STEFAN TROMEL, Senior Disability Specialist, International Labour Organization (ILO), summarizing the findings of the second panel discussion on non-exclusion on the basis of disability, reasonable accommodation and access to inclusive education systems, said panellists agreed on the need to focus on the whole life cycle of education. Studies had shown that preschool education was a valuable return investment. Segregated education led to segregated employment and discrimination in the labour market. System change and more resources were needed for education in general, which meant organizations lobbying for education for children with disabilities needed to rally with mainstream civil society organizations. It was pointed out that countries could not afford to run two education systems – segregated and mainstream – and should opt for one good inclusive system. Examples of so-called developed countries that did not allow children with disabilities to take part in mainstream education proved that resources alone were not enough – there had to be a vision, a system that embraced diversity.
GOPAL MITRA, Programme Specialist, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), summarizing the findings of the third panel discussion on support for inclusion in the general education system and individualized support measures, said the overwhelming message of the day was that inclusive education was a good thing for all children, including children with disabilities. It also emerged that they needed to fundamentally challenge different components of education that prevented inclusion. The need to empower the frontline – to teach the teachers – was emphasized. It was highlighted that the expertise of children with disabilities, who negotiated the challenges related to their disability on a daily basis, had to be utilized The benefits of technology were also discussed, give its high cost, and the need to make it affordable for schools and students.
RICHARD REISER, World of Inclusion / Disabled Person International, said the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had to be prepared to challenge aspects that were contrary to inclusive education – and a major one was the privatization of education, as being seen in the United States, Sweden and England, for example. The Committee had to push strongly for school targets not to be normative but to be based on how a child had developed since he started at school.
DIANE RICHLER, Former President of Inclusion International, said on reflection one issue that had not been touched on today was the process of change, in moving to an inclusive system. There were countries that had strongly entrenched segregated systems and there were other countries which had many children in general excluded from education and were building up their system as a whole. It would be helpful for the general comment to give direction to States and to encourage them to have a short timeframe.
World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, proposed that they stop talking about ‘special education’ in terms of education for children with disabilities when what was really required was quality education. Diagnosis was not always useful, rather teachers had to be empowered to understand the nature of their pupil’s specific disability.
MARKKU JOKINEN, Honorary President, World Federation of Deaf, called on the Committee to consider how they could encourage States parties and systems to incorporate the enormous resources within the disability communities, to training persons with disabilities, including deaf people, to be teachers, role models and agents for change.
BARBARA BAILEY, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, proposed that the general comment explicitly addressed the risk of violence faced by women and girls with disabilities, covering educational institutions, with specific provisions to prosecute and punish perpetrators and to offer redress to victims. The general comment must give special attention to the domain of rights through education and the preparation of persons with disabilities for meaningful engagement in paid work, by proposing strategies that linked training to real employment opportunities. She also said that the general comment must contain clear strategies for dismantling such stereotypes as social attitudes were a powerful driver of the marginalization of children with disabilities in education.
JORGE CARDONA, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said States were obliged to drive through a paradigm shift into their educational systems, from a system that tried to make all children the same, to a system that recognized that all children were different. That would not be easy. Mr. Cardona said it was vital to pay particular attention to the views of children, who were well aware that children with disabilities were being discriminated against and demanding that they be included. Finally, he said it was unacceptable that persons with disabilities were only represented by one Committee, and that no member of other human rights committees had a disability. The United Nations had to learn to make the issue of inclusion cross-cutting. There not only had to be a gender perspective across the system, but a disability perspective as well.
MARIA SOLEDAD CISTERNAS, Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said Article 24 was one of the main priorities of the Committee. The Committee had strongly longed to draft a general comment on the right to education for persons with disability, looking at the root causes and the necessity of inclusive education, the legal and practical aspects, and the need for awareness raising. The Committee had the authority to speak out on those issues but it was very aware that they were sensitive issues that required analysis. The Committee had received 82 submissions in addition to all the input today, and was acutely aware of the challenges ahead. She emphasized that the Convention was not an island in the human rights system but rather an integrated and crucial part of the human rights framework.