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Championing disabled students

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

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.