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A Touch Of *Elitism* In German School Policy For The Disabled

Disabled kids can be integrated in regular classes, but only if they are on the university track.

A UN convention stipulates that disabled children have a right to be educated with non-disabled children
A UN convention stipulates that disabled children have a right to be educated with non-disabled children
Yannik Buhl

WALLDORF — Things seemed clear to Kerstin Ehrhardt: Next school year her son Henri would be attending high school in Walldorf in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Henri has Down Syndrome, but at his school he was part of a model experiment with two other mentally disabled children, all three of whom attended regular school classes. But while the other two children have been accepted into high school because they had chosen the program to prepare for the Abitur exam, which puts students on the university track, Henri is not. The powers that be at the high school thus refused him admission because it would require a separate pilot project.

Since then controversy has broken out about the question of inclusion — non-disabled and disabled children learning together in the same classes — in higher school. Henri’s mother, Kirsten Ehrhardt, believes that "no differences should be made with regard to the children." She has the state school board in Mannheim and the education authority in the town of Walldorf on her side, with the school providing the specialized teachers offering to follow Henri on to high school. Moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that disabled children have a right to be educated with non-disabled children.

If the pilot project comes through Walldorf would be the first high school in Baden-Württemberg with a fully inclusive class. For all parents, a fundamental issue is at stake. "It has to be absolutely clear that the principle of inclusion is something that concerns all kinds and levels of schools," says Ehrhardt.

The mother says the risk is that more special systems, for disabled and otherwise, continue to be created. Ehrhardt finds it particularly important that no exception be made for the high school “elite” pursuing the road to university.

The high school principal, Marianne Falkner, told Süddeutsche Zeitung that her school always accepted disabled kids so long as they intended to go for the Abitur. "It hurts a lot to find ourselves pushed into the category of being against people with disabilities." But Falkner also defended the decision not to accept Henri, saying that there presently is no legal framework for dealing with a case such as his.

Fast solution

Falkner added that she didn’t think they could presently provide the kind of support to kids like Henri whose goals for his high school education differed from the norm and observes that his non-acceptance only concerns the coming school year.

Meanwhile Gerd Weimer, the state’s commissioner for matters regarding people with disabilities, is urging a quick solution to the dilemma because despite the clear guidelines in the UN convention "the fact that the entire faculty of a high school believes that inclusion doesn’t concern their school is a fatal sign." Implementation of the inclusion idea is taking more time than expected, Weimer said, while "people with disabilities want an inclusive approach right now."

The case has also created a stir beyond state boundaries. Associations for the disabled all over Germany are protesting the high school’s decision. "The UN convention specifically addresses all the parts of a state, so how can a high school take it upon itself to make an exception like that?" asks Dorothea Terpitz from the Verein Gemeinsam Leben in Hesse, an association that supports inclusion for all.

Both the parents of the three disabled children as well as Walldorf high school see it as the duty of state Ministerof Education, Youth and Sports Andreas Stoch to clear the matter up. But his ministry is reluctant to lead a pilot project and prefers negotiation.

"The Ministry is in discussion with all concerned in order to try and find a solution," it said in a statement.

Stoch stressed the need to make schools understand the degree of support they get from the specialized teachers that work with the disabled children. He also pointed out that the decision with regard to the pilot project was still pending.

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