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Championing disabled students

Brigitte Petritsch fights for inclusion of Austria's disabled students in mainstream schools.

A student in Kalsdorf, Austria, who has benefited from Brigitte Petritsch's advocacy of inclusion. (Max Wegscheidler)

Photo caption: A student in Kalsdorf, Austria, who has benefited from Brigitte Petritsch's advocacy of inclusion. (Rainer Max Wegscheidler)

GRAZ, Austria — Brigitte Petritsch fought for decades for disabled children to be taught together with their able-bodied peers and, with the help of some unlikely allies, has made the classrooms of her home province, Styria, the most inclusive in Europe.

An array of photocopies and printouts on inclusive education have been prepared for my visit and laid out on the kitchen table. The 63-year-old's didactic impulse is strong even now, after seven years of retirement from the profession. "I can't stop being a teacher," Petritsch says, smiling and pushing a document over.

The first thing to learn is that inclusion is not the same as integration: "Integration means bringing children into our schools, but inclusion means we have to change our school systems to cater for them." The next is to know that 95 percent of learning happens when people explain something to someone else. So, having disabled children around working on a relatively elementary level presents an opportunity for more gifted classmates.

"When I first started advocating inclusive education I was fighting on behalf of disabled children, but I have since learned that non-disabled children learn so much from it and I'm no longer sure who benefits most," Petritsch says.

But the rationale was not immediately obvious, even to her. When a colleague returning from a trip abroad told her about the idea in 1981, "everyone said he was completely crazy and I was one of them. I was sure I was the best teacher for my special needs class." But she soon saw the other side when she visited a school pioneering a form of inclusion in West Berlin. "All of a sudden I got it. I was still convinced I was the best teacher, but I could never replace the non-disabled children."

The theory of inclusion holds that future Nobel Prize winners can study the same subject at the same time as a child with a serious learning difficulty, only at a different level, so long as each child receives a lesson tailored to their own ability. Teachers might require some extra classroom assistance, however: "If a child is blind you might need someone who can help teach them, or you might need to help someone with physical problems to feed themselves, or to provide help with going to the toilet."

There is a non-academic pay-off to inclusion too, she says: the development of empathy. In inclusive classrooms all children are required to understand and accept differences. "It is, perhaps, something that is impossible to learn after a certain age." On a visit to a class two months into their primary school career, Petritsch recalls she gave the class some chocolates. "There was a boy with no hands who couldn't open his. Without a word he passed it to his neighbor who unwrapped it for him and passed it back."