Knowledge of the human being on a silver platter. Inclusion – challenge or opportunity

Johannes Denger

One such legal text is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which has also been ratified by Germany. Since that time it is no longer tenable to exclude children from attending educational facilities because of their disability. The fact is that in Europe on average about 80 percent of children with disabilities are included and 20 percent are taught in special schools. In Germany exactly the reverse is the case: we face a particular problem with our diverse range of special schools (special-needs schools or schools for mental development or whatever else they may be called). 

To begin with, these figures say nothing about the quality of the teaching or the situation in which the children concerned live. But it is clear that we are far removed from the goal of schooling which is as inclusive as possible. It is precisely because there is a qualitatively and quantitatively highly developed, differentiated and thus also differentiating school system that the situation in Germany is considerably more complex than, say, in a country which does not possess such professional differentiation.

Inclusion is an imposition

Teachers in special-needs schools whose work is motivated in most cases by the wish to give children – some of whom have serious disabilities and who not so long ago would have been deemed to be “uneducable” – an existence of greater human dignity through education, suddenly find themselves branded as “human rights abusers”. That is difficult to bear and it is all too understandable that they defend themselves inwardly and outwardly against such a view of their work. Social change cannot happen in opposition to, but only together with the people who through their choice of occupation alone display a pronounced interest in the wellbeing of children with disabilities.

Waldorf teachers have been saying – even before the debate about inclusion – that they are encountering “special-needs situations” in their schools with increasing frequency. They see a growing therapeutic need in the children and ask the special-needs teachers to help them. Children are now coming to Waldorf schools who previously found their place in special-needs schools. Teachers at the “regular” Waldorf schools, who have little idea about special-needs education, increasingly see themselves facing demands from individual parents to accept their child with disabilities into their class.

These two directions of developments are on a collision course. Now it is a fascinating question whether the result will be a crash or reciprocal fertilisation. It can encourage Waldorf educators to return once more to a deeper study of the sources of our understanding of the human being because one-sided developmental tendencies in the so-called “special-needs child” often occur in an extremely distinct way and can only be understood through our knowledge of the human being. This is study of the human being in its purest form, served on a silver platter.

Conversely the special-needs teachers emerge from their social niche and begin to understand that they too have a general human educational mission beyond the teaching of children with disabilities. It is essential for the work of Waldorf educators and special-needs teachers working with anthroposophy that they answer the question as to the extent to which education can be healing, particularly also how they handle tendencies which “deviate from the norm”. Can this be done without in a sense creating new disabilities and stigmatising the children in that way? That is of exceptional importance for the children concerned, not least against the background of the new paradigm.

From euthanasia to social acceptance

The so-called image of the human being with regard to disability – both in society and specifically in work – has considerably changed since 1945. The darkest period falls in the time before 1945, particularly in Germany because of the euthanasia which was practiced at the time.

Between 1945 and about 1960, we find as the first great arc the “medically curative image of the human being” (Fornefeld). Disability, particularly in its form as so-called “mental disability”, was understood primarily as a medical and nursing problem. The description of symptoms, bundling them into syndromes and the development of medicinal treatments was associated with the hope that the disability could be made to disappear sooner or later, or at least gradually be reduced.

The second great arc from about 1960 to 1990 could be summarised under the title “educationally optimistic image of the human being”. During this period the whole special-needs school landscape became differentiated; there were ever more special school forms for ever more specific tasks with ever more specialised knowledge.

The third arc from about 1990 to the present can be called an integrating and accepting image of the human being. Reversing segregation through integration and ensuring through inclusion that people with disabilities live right among us is socially healing to a certain extent.

People with disabilities are no longer disabled

It goes without saying that both the medically curative and educationally optimistic direction continue to provide helpful results which should continue to be developed. But the most recent paradigm change has brought about a fundamental change of attitude. Disability is no longer understood as a characteristic adhering to the individual person but as a “social construct” which arises through interaction.

Thus it says in the preamble to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers”.

This means that people are not disabled but are caused to be disabled. As it is environmental and attitudinal barriers that lead to disability in the first place, it can be removed through overcoming such barriers.

Inclusion is a generational project

Creating an inclusive society is a generational project. The maximum demand that schools should cater for everyone and should do so immediately is unrealistic and counterproductive. Rather, it is a case of offering a diversity of forms which allow the parents of the children concerned the freedom of choice to find the appropriate school form for their children. This necessary diversity includes as a new step the development of schools which work on an inclusive basis. An awareness of that is gradually awakening.

How do Waldorf schools and special-needs schools cope with this challenge? In the past four years the “Inclusion Working Group” has supported a growing number of Waldorf schools and special-needs schools in various cities which are facing up to this paradigm change. A crucial factor is the collaboration between the Waldorf school and the special-needs school on the ground. The first concrete steps towards inclusive projects are being taken through such fledgling collaboration in joint teachers’ conferences, through mentor classes which organise joint main lessons and school trips, through reciprocal guest pupils and professional special-needs advice for Waldorf educators. We start to learn from one another and experience it as a fertilisation of our own educational work. It is very important that the parents should be involved right from the beginning. Institutional success stands or falls with individual people who make the cause their own.

A new outlook

It is not a matter of saying: “Inclusion is great” or “Inclusion is bad”. As we deal with this challenge today, we have to make more differentiated judgements. To begin with, we have to understand and respect the huge human rights dimension. Then the complex questions of legal and political implementation arise. It is a matter of breaking down rigid structures, removing barriers, sometimes also overcoming things of which we have grown fond and creating the conditions for something new to arise. But the first thing is a change of attitude, a new outlook. Many special-needs teachers and social therapists report that changing structures can often be a difficult business but that having to come to terms with the spirit of the CRPD and other sources has changed the awareness with which they do their daily work. Whether inclusion becomes a reality or not is ultimately decided in the encounter between one human being and another.

About the author: Johannes Denger is a special-needs and Waldorf teacher and consultant for education, ethics and public relations at the Verband für anthroposophische Heilpädagogik, Sozialtherapie und soziale Arbeit e.V., as well as editor of the association’s  journal PUNKT UND KREIS.