NEW YORK, 04 October 2012
Richard Rieser is the managing director of World of Inclusion, an expert disabled international equality trainer, consultant and teacher. Recently, Mr. Rieser is supporting UNICEF as one of the minds behind Rights Education and Protection project (REAP). We spoke with Richard about inclusive education and the role of teachers in providing quality education for children with disabilities.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your experience? When did you become an activist for the rights of the disabled people?
A: Growing up with disability, I had a mixed experience going to segregated schools and mixed schools. None of them were particularly positive because schools in the 50s and 60s did not take disability into account. You had to basically survive and overcome your own impairment. Having done that, I became a super achiever and didn’t think about my impairment. I went to university and got involved in a various political movements in the 60s and 70s. I worked as a teacher and was involved with the teachers union on a general, quality basis. During that time, the disability was nothing more than an individual issue. I was picked on by the principal of the school for blatant discriminatory reasons. I fought and challenged the authority. Later, I collaborated on producing a book called Disability Equality in the Classroom: a human rights issue. I think it was the first publication that treated disability as a human rights issue rather than an individual medical problem.
Q: Is inclusive education affordable?
A: You have to look at this from two perspectives. In the rich countries we cannot afford to not have inclusive education. Running parallel school systems is extremely expensive and there is overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work. It has a long term impact on the children and adults with disabilities: they have low self-esteem, lack skills, lack social understanding and some find it very difficult to find a job or relate to people who are going to higher education. In the developing countries, apart from charities that continue to set up special schools in the mistaken view that this is the way forward, the number of children with impairment cannot be accommodated by a separate system – nor can those countries afford it – so we have to move to inclusion. It is a human right; it is entrenched in the convention of the rights of the people with disabilities. Human rights don’t have a cost.
Q: There is a lot of discussion about training teachers and the lack of available resources to accomplish this? What are your thoughts on this issue?
A: Teachers are meant to teach everybody, that’s what they are trained to do. Actually in every class there are children with some impairments, be it dyslexia, learning or speaking disabilities, behaviour or emotional difficulties. So teachers are used to dealing with it. The most important thing is the attitudes and the values of the leaders of the school, the “can do” attitude. There are thousands of tools that show you how to teach. Also, the Global Partnership for Children with Disabilities is working to set up a central website which will be used by universities, teachers and practitioners.
Q: Is Education for All succeeding in providing quality education for children with disability?
A: Education for All has been successful for some groups, particularly girls and poorer children with some positive action of school abolition fees and other financial support to cover school costs. But overall, Education for All has not worked for children with disabilities. They remain the largest group of out-of-school children and of those who drop out because what is happening in the classroom doesn’t fit their needs. The biggest barrier is centrally imposed curricula and standards. Governments need to be much more flexible in their grades and in their curricula. They need to develop high quality teachers and then trust the teachers to deliver it. Education is not a commodity, it’s a right.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your current consultancy for UNICEF and what are you trying to achieve?
A: I am currently working on a project that is looking on the education of teachers for children with disabilities around the world. We are looking at the lifetime of a teacher, their professional development: how can the inclusion of children with disabilities and other marginalised groups be more involved in their training and their practise? We are looking into the development of leaders within the school system: how can they be orientated towards an inclusive approach? We are looking into the people who train teachers in the universities and colleges because many of them have a rear view mirror view of education from the times they came into teaching 30-40 years ago when this wasn’t one of the issues. We found already that the best way of doing these trainings is at the school level. Bring the training into the school so there is a buy-in for the community and other staff involved.
Q: We talk about building facilities, training of teachers, etc. In reality, the biggest change that needs to happen is in people’s minds. What can we do to eradicate the stigma?
A: We need to move from seeing disability as an exception to being ordinary and part of life’s rich diversity. We need to take away the negative valuation that is placed on impairment and see that actually the history of humankind is full of people who had impairments and managed to make a huge difference. There is a huge industry still vested in the charity model of disability and we have to move to the rights-based model. We need to bring the mainstream media on board. Often, the mainstream media uses disability as a sort of pornography to get across dramatic ideas which has nothing to do with the person with disabilities. That is particularly the case in horror movies where physical and mental impairment is shown as a thing of fear. Really Article 8 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that this awareness raising is the duty of all governments. They need to make sure that television programming and the school curriculum take this on. I see very little evidence of this being done where the whole country takes that on board – like they have done in Ecuador the last six years – the change is possible and all children with disabilities are brought to school.
Interviewed by Rudina Vojvoda