Samuel Schiegg: How educational integration can be successful

Samuel Schiegg, one of our MyHandicap Ambassadors, writes from personal experience what is important to make educational integration of children with a disability successful.

When I was 2 year old, I became disabled due to a car accident. Even though many doctors said that I would not be able to speak again, walk again and most certainly not attend a regular school, I made it.

Since I spent my whole school time in mainstream school and neither had any special treatment in the following training at the Commercial College KV-College, I was actually trained from an early age to live in the “normal” and sometimes harsh everyday world. This had advantages and disadvantages. As disadvantage, I see the partly recognisable isolation of being the only special person, the "other human being" among so many non-disabled people.

For me, it was often difficult to categorise myself and to feel as a part of a group. As an advantage, I see that I was able to survive in this everyday world and I still do. My self-confidence has increased extremely.

Self determined life

Currently, I work in different departments of the Wagerenhof Foundation in Uster, near Zurich. The Foundation is a home for people with mental and/or multiple disabilities. There, I completed my internship and since October 2009, I have a permanent position as administrator. I am the “guy-of-all-work”, more precisely of all office work.

Currently, I am in the following departments: Agriculture, horticulture, specialised services, accounting and marketing. There, I do various office tasks, which I really enjoy. I enjoy the variety. Monotonous work or only working on a single focus; that would be out of question for me. Due to my presence at many different places within the company, I would have to be cut in 4 or 5 pieces.

Based on my own experience, I have many thoughts about how integration should be implemented. These thoughts I would like to share with you.

What should related people do in the integration process?

The child

The main person in this process is the child resp. the youth. The child/youth should be willing to attend a regular school and not be pushed by third parties e.g. the parents.

Nor should each dispute be seen as an attack. Like any other “normal” child, children with a limitation may drop a brick. Such disputes are to be regulated by the child itself. Disabled children should not try to drag their parents or teachers to their side.

Most disputes are minor, such as laughing in an inappropriate situation, no saying hello etc. It is also important that the child itself approaches fellow pupils and not just wait to be addressed - which is certainly not always easy.

The parents

Of course, parents of a child with a disability are usually more present in school than those parents of children without a disability: whether for discussions about the dispensation from gym classes or to extracurricular activities (excursion, school trip). However, that does not mean that the parents must be omnipresent.

Parents should not interfere in every detail. Many "little" things can be clarified by the children among themselves because these are everyday problems such as erratic behaviour. If, however, it is a confrontation within integration, of course, the talks should be sought.

Supporting without emphasising the child

It is of great importance that the parents involve in the process with informing. If there is a parent interview within this process, the child should be informed about the content of the conversation, or better join the talk.

To increase staying power, bite and motivation of the child, it is important to say things clearly. Like this phrase for example: “Actually we thought, it would be clear that you would attend special school. But you are doing great in regular school!”

Parents have to compare benefits. Advantages and disadvantages of mainstream and special school should be considered carefully.

Teachers

Equality in this context does not only mean equality for the integration-willing child but also for the classmates. Just as in the eyes of the law, all are equal in the eyes of the teacher. A teacher should be tolerant and at the same time not taking sides. For many teachers, this may be a high wire act; however, he/she should try to take this path.

Many teachers are lacking a neutral view and some are less strict in certain situations with the limited child. They let the child to get away with different things. However, it should be clear that if the child does not do his/her homework, the “sentence” should be carried out and everybody has to accept that sentence.

If the child has difficulties to write and due to this needs more time to do his/her homework, a clear agreement of doing only half of the homework could be made. This, however, should not become too public since primary students have a strong sense of justice. However, I do not intent to generalise here.

Later, in vocational school or college, this may be different in some cases. The classmates are older, more mature and have greater social competence as well as empathy. However, this statement too, is to be taken carefully; because in all classes/schools, there are youths who could be jealous.

A disabled child can often be a high wire act for the teacher

On the subject of giving marks, equality is also the first concern. I will not comment on the case of good marks, but on the case of negative ones. What happens if a disabled person receives a bad mark? Nothing else than if a classmate receives one, should be the answer!

Teachers should not question the whole integration because of bad marks. Unfortunately, that has happened before.

Concerning excursions and school trips, the teacher should try to integrate the affected person even if this means extra effort (searching for an appropriate excursion destination, asking for an external – not related – caregiver, etc.). This extra effort, however, is worth it in 99% of the cases. Extracurricular activities foster the sense of community and cannot be replaced by anything else.

Other experts

Experts should only be consulted if necessary and in that case, they should only focus on their “core business”. They should not involve in other happenings in the class room. Only facts should be approached and discussed; they should not yet imagine possible horror scenarios. Additional to this, influences such as a personal relationship with the parents should be avoided within a consultation.

Classmates

Classmates are an important factor in the integration process, if not even the most important one. They tip the scale, “to be or not to be” in friendship or, in the negative case, in enmity.
They build the climate in the classroom; they are responsible for a pro or anti mood.

If the majority of the class accepts the person with a disability right from the beginning, then, the rest of the class will follow and accept and tolerate this person too.

Open communication is a further concern. It is important to express his/her opinion frankly and say it, if something is not right; not forming an alliance against the maybe fallible person. If a classmate learns something about the person with the disability that is – in his/her eyes – embarrassing and related to the disability and that could damage that person’s reputation, that classmate should show true greatness and keep that knowledge private.

School is for a long time the only place for disabled children to socialise with other children; therefore, exclusion weights often more for a person with disability than for "normal" students.

Therapists

Therapists need to set priorities with the child and the parents. What is more important: school or therapy? What success brings this double burden (school/therapy)? What goals shall be reached within what period? Appointments before or after school?

What I really want to stress is that school time is limited and that the therapy has to focus on keeping stable the physical condition, if possible, or at least minimise the degradation. Increasing and improvement can still be done after school years.

There should be no drama either if the treated person does not succeed in the exercises. Otherwise, the child / youth has two “pressure centres”, namely the school and therapy.

Image cultivation

A person with disabilities usually works with more effort than a non-disabled one, also in group work or projects. Not infrequently, this commitment is exploited by other members of the group; since the disabled person does not want to be the scapegoat if the work is not completed as requested. In addition, working with a disabled person is often done for image cultivation.

Successful integration on rocky road

Samuel Schiegg is an example for successful integration of people with disabilities in school and job. Even though it is not always easy and rarely goes smoothly, integration makes sense for both sides and is valuable.

The advice from Samuel Schiegg may be a help for parents, teachers, therapists and for the affected children/youths themselves on the path of integration. Please share your opinion.

Contact: Samuel Schiegg: llinkin(at)gmx.net, redaktion(at)myhandicap.de

Text: Samuel Schiegg / editorial office MyH
Translation: MPL
Pictures: Hiki