School: system change for the integration of disabled children

The educational integration of children with disabilities should turn from the exception to the rule. The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) has made an inter-cantonal agreement to the course.

Marc attends 4th grade in mainstream school in the Canton Bern. Actually, nothing unusual – if he had not the Down's syndrome. He, however, likes to be in a class together with other, non-disabled children. “It was his own wish to attend a regular school”, explains his mother to MyHandicap.

Own decision for regular school

Marc is used to be with non-disabled children. Yet in kindergarten, he spent half of the week with children without disabilities. On the other days, he attended a kindergarten of a remedial school. “The constant change started to annoy him after a while, so eventually he only wanted to go to mainstream kindergarten.” Since then, Marc attended the same classes as his non-disabled friends, the same later in school.

This was made possible thanks to the effort by the class teacher who supports the integration of Marc. Since he cannot learn exactly the same contents as his school friends, he studies with special learning material from the remedial school. The other parents have been informed about the integration project in advance.

Marc’s family throughout received positive feedback from the other parents. For the other children in the class, Marc is no burden and they can still fully develop their skills. Marc himself is happy that he can live in a “normal” environment and benefits e.g. from the language competence of his classmates. “He is socially greatly integrated and has many friends. His classmates also invite him to birthday parties just like the other kids”, says Marc’s mother.

Integration – task of the schools

To increasingly realise integration in the future, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) organised a project. The inter-cantonal agreement on cooperation in special education will come into action in 2011.

The aim of the agreement is to harmonise the cooperation between the cantons in the field of special education and to meet the obligations to eliminate discrimination of disabled people.

In particular, the cantons determine the basic offer which guarantees education and care of children and youths with special educational needs.

In addition, the cantons facilitate the integration of children and young people in mainstream schools. Additionally, they are obligated to use common instruments.

It applies to the cantons to place the constitutional and legal duties. Therefore, the Swiss people decided in 2004 within the Reorganisation of Financial Equalization (NFA) that the cantons are responsible for adequate training of all disabled children and youths. This particularly applies to the compulsory schools. Previously, this was the task of the Swiss Disability Insurance (IV).

Cantons committed to integration

Article 20 of the Federal Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities (DDA) puts the cantons under the following obligation: “The cantons shall ensure that disabled children and youths receive a basic training which is adapted to their special needs; to foster them as far as possible and in the best interests of the disabled child or youth; to ensure the integration of disabled children and youths in mainstream schools with appropriate forms of schooling; to ensure particularly that perceptual or articulation limited children and youths and close and/or related people can learn a form of communication that is adapted to the person's needs.”

The following principles are to ensure these obligations:

  • The special education is part of the public education commission.
  • Integrative solutions are preferable to separating solutions due regard for the welfare and development opportunities of the child or youth as well as taking account of the school environment and school organisation.
  • In the field of special education, the principle of free education applies; for food and care may be required a financial contribution by the legal guardian.
  • The parents are to be involved into the integration process concerning the arrangement of special measures.

If structural measures arise because of a disability, the DDA which regulates the accessibility of public buildings applies. The cantons and private schools therefore have to ensure access for people with disabilities in new buildings and alterations. This is done in the by the DDA controlled proportionality (clause 3). A fundamental right to an immediate adjustment, however, does not exist.

The better solution on the long run

The implementation of the agreement, however, also triggers questions and concerns. Does this really help disabled pupils? Can pressure to save money occur by trying to save the costly special schools? Because the change from special class to a regular class requires adjustment by all involved people.

"I am optimistic that in the longer term, integration is the better solution," says Martin Wendelspiess, Deputy Ministers of Public Education Authority of Zurich. In the canton of Zurich, it is investigated in meetings whether the integration of a child is possible. In those, solutions for integration are searched together with parents, teachers and –if possible – with the child. The skill and not the weaknesses are in the foreground.

Cost-neutral for cantons

The next step is to consider whether the necessary know-how is available or where it can be obtained from. Is an outside expert with a special educational training needed or is it sufficient if the teachers complement each other? How Wendelspiess declares, the integration is cost-neutral for the canton. There is no need for specially trained experts to, for example, accompany a disabled child to the toilet. The expert assistance will only be deployed where really needed.

Special schools will still exist in the future, although the emphasis lays on the inclusion in mainstream schools. "If in doubt, an integration should be sought, but not at any cost" expresses by Martin Wendelspiess.

Text: HIA 03 - 2010
Translation: MPL 05 - 2010