For German children with disabilities it's always been difficult to get regular schools to allow them to attend. Now, however, things must change because of a UN convention requiring schools to accept all children.
Marcel's mother fought for him to attend an integrated school
When Marcel was old enough to start school, his mother picked out one of the public elementary schools in their neighborhood for him. The school, however, said he couldn't attend. Why? They said they weren't set up to deal with a kid in a wheelchair.
For decades that's the way it was in Germany. Children with disabilities were sent to separate schools, each one specialized for a different disability. That is all set to change now that Germany has ratified a United Nations resolution that says that all children with disabilities have a right to be educated at a regular school.
Marcel's teacher says he's totally integrated in his class
It's set to be a long process. Currently the majority of German children with disabilities don't go to regular schools. So far the city-state of Bremen is the only German state to open all its schools to everyone. In North Rhine-Westphalia, where Marcel lives, that could be a long way off, although he did eventually find a spot in what is called an integrated or inclusive school.
"We had a hard struggle with the administration," his mother told Deutsche Welle, "because I didn't want him to go to those special schools for the handicapped. I wanted him to go to a normal school with all his friends from the neighborhood and I didn't want him to be separated from real life."
Marcel's mother said she's convinced that if she hadn't put up such a fight and even threatened to take the school district to court he would never have been given a spot in one of the few schools in the area that teaches the disabled and the non-disabled together.
Still not an option at many schools
The elementary school that refused to accept Marcel years ago still doesn't take kids with disabilities, saying on its website that "because this is not an integration school, we cannot support children with disabilities and therefore we cannot accept them." The school is an old, brick building in a Bonn neighborhood peppered with half-timber cottages with green shutters.
Inside the school, a wide staircase winds its way up four flights of stairs. At the very top the school principal, Jutta Fremerey, has her office.
Old buildings are just one hurdle to integration in Germany
"We can't take kids in wheelchairs, just because of the building," said Fremerey. "And there are lots of buildings in Germany where it wouldn't be possible. At least not yet."
Fremerey was not the principal when Marcel tried to attend. She said she supports the idea of having children with disabilities in the same classroom as children without disabilities in theory, but that a lot needs to change before that would be feasible nationwide. She would need at least two teachers per class, she said, and one of them would have to be specially trained for teaching disabled children. She said she'd need small extra rooms where kids could get more personal attention and all of the lessons would have to be adapted for each of the children with disabilities.
"Because there are lots and lots of totally different types of disabilities and everyone needs something different," Fremerey said. "The blind child needs something completely different from the child who can't hear. The mentally disabled child needs completely different conditions than a child with emotional or social problems. Those different requirements need to be addressed."
According to Anne Waldschmidt, a professor of disability studies at the University of Cologne, that kind of differentiation should be expected of a teacher.
"Integration or inclusion means more personalized ways of teaching … to differentiate the subjects and the topics and to give every child the chance to learn according to personality and to individual interests and at their own pace," she said. "So that means the whole atmosphere is more individualized and that there isn't a standard approach."
Three adults in the classroom
In Marcel's class there are three adults to help students
Marcel's school, which is also in Bonn, has the manpower to do just that. In addition to the various subject-matter teachers that teach his class math, German, English or history, a special education teacher is also present all day long. Bringing the number of adults in the classroom to three is Marcel's attendant, who only occasionally has to get Marcel a book he needs but can spend the rest of the time helping other kids in the class one-on-one.
Marcel is totally integrated into his class, his special education teacher Daniel Mays said, as are the five students with learning disabilities.
"Being with the other kids, it gives you the feeling of just being normal," Marcel said.
His classmate May said she doesn't forget that Marcel is in a wheelchair, but that it doesn't make much of a difference in their friendship.
"I think it's like with anybody else," she said. "When I'm with other guys I act the same way."
Despite these successes only two of six classes in each grade at the school are integrated and it is not required to take on more disabled children.
Germany may officially be on board with bringing differently abled children together, but it still has a relatively low rate of integration. According to the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, only about 15 percent of children with disabilities are educated in a regular classroom in Germany. In neighboring France and Poland, for example, it's about 31 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
According to Mays, who has done his own statistical analysis for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, any recent increase to Germany's level of integration is undone by the fact that more and more children who already attend regular schools are being identified as having a disability, usually a learning or emotional disability. At the same time Germans are having fewer children than in the past and the number of pupils drops each year.
"Now we have the UN convention for the rights of people with disabilities and Germany ratified it a year ago. We have to change our system into an inclusive system," Marcel's mother said. "But no one is willing, really willing to do it. There are several examples like this school here. They've been doing it for many years. But it's just two classes per grade level that do integration. Why isn't it all of them?"
Author: Holly Fox
Editor: Chuck Penfold