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How Germany is failing special-needs students

March 11, 2019

"Whoever isn't 'productive' is worthless," said a woman forced to abandon her studies when her disability could not be accommodated. When it comes to inclusion, German schools and universities have a long way to go.

School children raise their hands
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Coming from a school system where inclusion was the norm, when I first arrived in Germany as a 16-year-old exchange student, one of the first things I noticed was that there was no wheelchair access to the school building. There was no braille underneath the classroom signs. No one appeared to be on the autism spectrum or have the slightest sign of mental illness. Every student had a relatively similar set of intellectual skills.

"The problem is, the German education system is highly selective. Children are separated into the university-bound Gymnasium or other types of secondary schools at a young age," said Timm Albers, a specialist in inclusive education at the University of Paderborn. Germany's dual-track school system divides students into those who are deemed fit to go on to higher education and those who are channeled to vocational schools when they have completed 10 years of school.

Read more: A mixed report card on Germany's educational system

The system, say many critics, is not only discriminatory towards those with special needs, but also against children for whom German is a second language. The 2018 Education in Germany report, presented last summer by the ministry of education, found that children from immigrant backgrounds — many of whom could fall within the umbrella term "special needs" due to insufficient grasp of the German language — were marginalized and unlikely to have the same opportunities as other students. The study also found that the tracking system perpetuated inequality.

Infografik Förderbedarf Schule EN

'Germany still hasn't come very far'

"There are a lot of parents who don't want their children going to school with disabled children, they take their children out of schools that say they'll going to integrate classes," Albers told DW, "even though all the research says it's good for children, not only in terms of social competence but also for cognitive development."

After the murder of 270,000 disabled people by the Nazis, the postwar German government declared that it would protect the rights of mentally and physically ill children. However, for decades, this meant segregating them into special-needs schools. It wasn't until parents and advocates built up enough political pressure in 1972 that inclusion — although this term didn't come into the lexicon until the 1990s — was even considered an integral part of the rights of disabled persons in Germany to lead a normal life.

This makes it less surprising, perhaps, that the federal government only recently reinstated the voting rights of tens of thousands of special-needs adults who had been purged from voter rolls.

"Germany still hasn't come very far … more children are being diagnosed, but more schools and teachers equipped for teaching disabled children are just not there. And the older a child gets, the harder it becomes for them to find a class that can accommodate them. Some children are getting on buses and traveling over 20 kilometers to school every day. The situation has significantly stagnated," according to Albers.

The lack of resources is compounded by Germany's 16 different federal states having 16 different sets of regulations, 16 different rules for official diagnosis, and 16 different kinds of rules about what can be offered to ill pupils. The federal government is relatively powerless to intervene as education is up to each individual state.

'Why am I not allowed to study?'

Although all of Germany's states do indeed enshrine the right to equal educational opportunities for people with special needs, this starts to drop off after the elementary school level, and even then, navigating the system is not always easy. Even at the university level the barriers can be bafflingly difficult to confront.

For Julia Faulhammer, an activist and blogger who suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the system became so Kafkaesque that she had to quit her studies at the Chemnitz University of Technology in the eastern state of Saxony.

At a time when she could not control what [she] wrote on a piece of paper, how to hand it in [or] how to get home, she was offered a one-size-fits all "solution" by the university: to take her exams in a separate room on the university premises. All attempts to work with the administration to achieve a workaround that would be more in tune with her specific needs came up against one bureaucratic hurdle after another, despite her good grades and passion for her studies.

She was also told by a professor that someone who was mentally ill should not be studying psychology.

"First of all, you have to file a separate petition for each individual class every semester (and rejected petitions cost 85 euros each)," Faulhammer told DW. "I received an e-mail in December 2018 telling me they would decide my case in January. I waited all of January…until one week before the exam they refused my petition and told me, once again, that my only option was to take the exam in a separate room at the university."

"To this day I don't understand the sense of these rules … the only thing I can't do is sit an exam in a university building. Why can't this one restriction be accommodated? Why am I not allowed to study?"

Faulhammer said she considered filing a legal complaint, but "courts tend to decide in favor of the university."

Productivity über alles?

"When it comes to inclusion, I am very disillusioned, though not hopeless," she said, adding that when those with special needs ask for equality, "we keep hearing that we just want more advantages," than other students. "The healthy must listen to the ill, because we are more than just ill."

"Whoever isn't 'productive' is worthless. That's Germany."

Albers said he too is "skeptical" that much will change to improve the situation for special-needs students in the near future, despite recommendations and studies by groups like Germany's branch of UNESCO. He stressed that a big part of the problem was the lack of enough teachers and specialized training. 

"Student teachers are interested in both inclusion and integration of immigrant children, but the special training they need isn't really offered. We need whole teams of teachers bringing in different perspectives to make inclusion a reality."

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.