Championing disabled students

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."

 

Petritsch's first experiment with inclusion in 1985 was as an outlaw. She created a single inclusive classroomin the Styrian village of Kalsdorf with only the backing of a sympathetic school headmistress and school inspector. "It was totally illegal," Petritsch says. It was only given legitimacy three weeks after it started after the headmistress called to ask a minister appearing on a radio call-in show to ask if it was okay to give it a try.

The experiment steadily expanded beyond the one classroom and was received positively by the parents of both disabled and non-disabled children. But the growth of inclusion really got going when it won an unlikely champion higher up. "I am from the left too, not only my hair," says Petritsch pulling at her crimson bob. But she still managed to convert Bernd Schilcher, a regional education minister from the "black," or center-right People's Party, to advocate for inclusion soon after he took office in 1989.

But how did she convert a conservative politician to implement a radically egalitarian system?

"I told him, 'You have to get the inclusion bug and you will only get it if you see it in person.'" Schilcher duly paid a visit and caught the bug. With his backing, the program was rolled out more widely in the province and, in 1993, he helped to persuade the Austrian government to pass laws giving parents throughout Austria the right to choose to enroll disabled children in a mainstream school.

Over 80 percent of the Styria's 120,000 disabled children are now included in mainstream schools. (In Germany the percentage with the same access is closer to 5 percent.) And in Austria as a whole the figure is about 50 percent, with some provinces like Vorarlberg bringing down the average significantly with a inclusion rate of only about 20 percent. But Petritsch has now started a new push for full inclusion by 2016, taking article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the starting point. Austria ratified the convention in 2008 but it is failing to implement it, she says. Even Styria recently built three new schools for special education.

Legislators need to learn that it is not the right of parents to to send their disabled child to mainstream school, she says, but the right of a child to be included in a mainstream school. "The only criteria for inclusion is breathing, even if it is with assistance. There is no limit." But what of a peaceful retirement? "I can't leave my baby alone," she says, shrugging.