Exclusion in the Dutch Educational System

Lieke Scheewe
November 08, 2009

The UNESCO Culture of Peace Program emphasizes that empowerment of marginalized voices is an essential part of peace building (Toh, 2007). The empowerment of the ‘disabled’ is only at the beginning of a long process toward inclusion. World-wide young people with disabilities, girls in particular, are still combating blatant educational exclusion (UNESCO, 2009a, p. 5). Of the 75 million children of primary school age who are out of school, one third are children with disabilities, thereby constituting the world’s largest and most disadvantaged minority (UNESCO, 2009b). While persons with disabilities make up ten percent of the world’s population, disability is associated with twenty percent of global poverty (UN, 2009). The strong association of disability with poverty especially in conflict zones prevents the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals unless the mainstreaming of disability in public education is developed in order to truly achieve golabl peace (UN, 2009).

An international milestone was reached in May 2008, when the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities entered into force, recognizing human dignity and promoting the rights of disabled (UN, 2006). In the Netherlands a law for ‘equal treatment on the basis of handicap or chronic illness’ (WGBH/CZ) was adopted in 2003, which applied to work places and vocational education. Three months ago the application of this law was expanded to include primary and secondary education (CGB, 2009). While the process of legal inclusion is slowly moving ahead, there are still many cultural challenges that have to be overcome in order for full inclusion to be realized. Two major challenges – the deep-rooted cultural meanings attached to the notion of disability as a social construct, and the way in which this construction of disability has been reinforced by the Dutch educational system – will be touched upon in this essay. It is hoped that this analysis will contribute to provide insight in the necessary steps that need to be taken to create a peaceful culture of diversity, in which there is equal room for everyone to fulfill their potential.

Disability as a Social Construct

Just as gender and ethnicity have in the past few decades been deconstructed and revealed as social constructions rather than objective facts of nature, so must the notion of disability be deconstructed (Burr, 1995; Murphy, 1990). In the same way that a distinction has been made between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, a distinction should be made between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’. Impairment is considered here to be a relatively objective notion, namely those symptoms or characteristics of the body that are classified by the medical world as physical or mental deviations from normality that inhibit ‘normal’ functioning. Disability then is the cultural meaning attached to certain impairments and is created through “the interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, [that] hinder the full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (UN, 2006). The language we use is central to the way we interpret experiences (Foucault, 2003). In this light it is important to note that the term ‘disability’ seems to imply a general characteristic attributed to those carrying this label as having fewer capabilities than those who are considered to be healthy. The label of disability comes with many societal myths, fears, expectations of (in-)capabilities, and assumptions of needs, and is applied to an enormously wide variety of individuals who would not necessarily consider themselves disabled. Within the Netherlands this concerns 2.5 million people (Radar, 2009).

Perspectives on disability change throughout time and across cultures (Ingstad & Whyte, 1995). Research in Western countries shows that we stereotype disabled as ‘high warmth’, ‘low competence’ (which inspires pity), needy, ‘less than human’, and that we often experience discomfort, anxiety, or disgust in the presence of disabled, resulting in either avoidance behavior or helping behavior (Park et al., 2003; Stanton, 2007). Throughout time this attitude has included varying types of disabilities – with the development of technology most people with visual impairments are no longer considered disabled, and with the shift in cultural values homosexuality has recently medically been accepted as part of the ‘normal variation’ rather than classified as a mental disorder. The Western notion of disability is understood by various anthropologists as being based on the medical model – that conceptualizes disability as a physiological or mental deficit that needs to be fixed (Silvers et al., 1998) – and on cultural norms of individuality, independence, and functionality. Talle’s ethnographic study among the Maasai in Kenya points out that the concept of ‘disabled person’, as defined within the Western context, does not exist there (Ingstad & Whyte, 1995). Rather, they define personhood in terms of participation in community reciprocity.

The deeply culturally embedded notion of disability as a natural phenomena unrightfully implies that ‘disabled’ are fundamentally different from ‘non-disabled’ and creates a normal/abnormal dichotomy- according to which society becomes divided. It thereby provides the legitimization for a wide variety of discriminatory policies and non-policies (i.e. policies that should be in place in order to create equal opportunities). Generally these policies are not discriminatory in the sense of purposefully attempting to oppress, marginalize, or eliminate disabled from society, but discriminatory and marginalizing nevertheless, and thereby constituting a form of cultural violence (Galtung, 1990). There are many societal structures and institutions through which this notion of disability is reinforced, including the media (that only rarely or stereotypically represent disabled), the welfare system (which classifies people as being disabled or ‘not disabled enough’ in order to receive benefits), and the medical system (which classifies impairments and conveys the idea that they are merely negative experiences that we should always try to ‘fix’). Another institution which is crucial for the reproduction of cultural norms and values (Freire, 2000), is the educational system and policies that reinforce these classifications; these characteristics will be described in the next section.

Inequality in Education

In my perspective I was lucky. At the age of 10, two years after I was diagnosed with a muscular disease, my teachers at primary school managed to convince my parents that I was better off in the regular school system than at a ‘special school’ (for children with disabilities). The reason was that they considered me to be more intelligent than the average student, and a ‘special school’ would not offer me enough intellectual challenge. I was lucky, because there was another boy in my school who did get advised to attend a special school, a boy who was ‘more severely disabled’ and was considered to have an average intelligence level. I was lucky, because I could stay with my friends in my own neighbourhood. I was lucky, because those who have stimulated me and believed in my capacities throughout my childhood were my teachers and friends in school. I was lucky, because if it would not have been for my teachers’ persistence 13 years ago, the chances that I would now be studying at the University for Peace in Costa Rica would have been very slim. I was lucky, because I got an equal opportunity to become who I want to be, while the other boy did not.

The account above is meant to illustrate what unequal opportunity in the Dutch educational system means on a personal level. Since August 1, 2009, a law exists that enforces equal treatment for disabled children in primary and secondary school (CGB, 2009). Prior to this law, regular schools were not obliged to accept these children and to offer the necessary facilities to accommodate their needs. So-called ‘special education’ exists, which refers to those schools that are set-up especially for children with mental and physical disabilities who cannot (or are considered not to be able to) participate in the education programs at regular schools; for example, students whom can only study a limited amount of hours per day or because they need school materials in Braille (NCRV, 2004). A Dutch documentary shows the struggle of the parents of a girl with a light form of the Down Syndrome, who went to 15 schools and through several court cases before they found a regular school that would accept their daughter. Once enrolled in the school, with an individual educational program that allows her to learn according to her own needs in an environment that also allows her to participate in mainstream society, both the parents, the girl, and the school were happy with the results. A poll showed that 60 percent of Dutch parents with a disabled child encountered a similar struggle (NCRV, 2004).

Segregation in the educational system (as well as the lower level of education in special schools) perpetuates discrimination in the labour market, which prevents the disabled from participating in society according to their abilities. Radar (2009), a Dutch organization that reports on discrimination, stated that two-thirds of 1300 researched employers were less likely to hire a disabled applicant, due to prejudice. Needing to accommodate for their needs is often perceived as a burden, misunderstandings exist around how many adaptations in the workplace need to be made (in many cases minimal adaptations will suffice), and low expectations occur around the contributions that disabled employees will be able to make. While the law is expanding to include more and more areas in which discrimination against disabled is prohibited, prejudiced attitudes towards them will not change overnight. Few figures or statistics exist around the extent of discrimination within the educational system, including primary schools up to universities, in the labour market, or the society at large. The few statistics that do exist, however, are enough reason for concern.

Towards a Culture of Diversity

Several transformations will need to take place in order to create a school system that respects diversity and stimulates the fulfillment of each and everyone’s potential to the fullest and most equal extent. No literature could be found on the fundamental reasons for the existence of a separate school system for disabled children in the Netherlands. From my understanding of Dutch society and culture, having grown up and lived in the Netherlands for 22 years, I do not consider it as a deliberate strategy to segregate disabled from society, but rather as a development resulting from a strive for efficiency; a concern for the quality of education for the non-disabled, if teachers would have to divide their attention between the disabled student and the rest of the class; from taking a non-disabled’ perspective on what the needs of disabled are, rather than incorporating perspectives of the disabled; and from a lack of creativity and flexibility.

The late implementation of a law for equal treatment in the Dutch school system is remarkable, considering that many other countries with a lot less available resources, such as Italy, have already started including disabled children in mainstream schools (NCRV, 2004). Also, in Costa Rica I have heard of a deaf boy in who is in class with a girl in my host family, whereby the whole class was taught sign language in order to be able to communicate with him. Yet, problems have also been identified with the inclusion of the disabled in a system and school culture that is not ready for them (NCRV, 2004). In a culture where prejudice against disabled exist and is not actively addressed in schools, children with disabilities are more likely than others to encounter bullying, to be avoided by peers, or to be treated differently by teachers who may hold lower expectations of their capabilities.

A crucial change in mentality needs to drive this transformation process in a positive direction. The Dutch government could, for example, stimulate campaigns for the recognition of equal treatment of the disabled as a human right. It could stimulate programs that inform schools about the different options for school materials and methods to accommodate for different needs, such as exchanges with schools in countries that have already implemented these changes. Programs could be set-up in hospitals and rehabilitation centers for parents of children with disabilities that inform them of the wide range of possibilities and that stimulate them to think of their children’s future in open and positive terms; as a way to not only empower the parents, but through them also empower the children to think of their capabilities, rather than focusing so strongly on their limitations. Flexibility and creativity will need to be key factors in this process.

While recognizing that accommodating for any kind of need related to impairment in any kind of school environment is a great challenge, requiring expertise and resources now concentrated in one separate ‘special school’ system. This transformation will be a beneficial process for everyone when based on principles of ‘humanization’ and ‘emancipation’ (Freire, 2000), rather than ‘normalization’ (i.e. applying traditional cultural values and standards of learning objectives). Opening up a school system to such a wide diversity of students in this way will transmit to children values of tolerance for difference and equality as well as enhance the development of creativity essential for a sustainable culture of peace.


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