Inclusion in education and the workplace: school bench, lecture hall, executive office?


According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, children with disabilities should have access to an inclusive education. But the reality often appears to be very different. What is the next step after school? Vocational training, university studies or sheltered workshop after all? The wants and needs still differ greatly from what our society is currently permitting.

Photo: Teacher standing behind a girl who sits at a computer; Copyright: Michaudeau

In some countries inclusion in school and professional life is quite natural - in others it is not; © Michaudeau

The term inclusion has become an integral part in the areas of education and the workplace. It is mostly being debated because there is still a great need for more discussion and explanation. After all, the debate often starts when the question comes to regular mainstream or special needs schools:

Many parents and teachers question how and if things can work when children with and without disabilities are instructed together in the same classroom. However, more and more examples from everyday life at school show that uncertainty and fear of change apparently drive this doubt. Regardless whether it’s students with autism or students in wheelchairs – with the right supports and some modifications, they can all participate in a regular education classroom. Something that’s being increasingly implemented in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland but still only amounts to solutions for individual cases, has already been an integral part of daily classroom life for decades in Italy and Sweden for example.

Support in vocational training and university studies

If the school career truly starts on an inclusive path, it should obviously continue that way later on. Yet the search for an apprenticeship position, for instance, is not easy – and certainly not if you have a disability. That’s why the goal of the apprenticeship position exchange called "Lehre + Handicap" (Apprenticeship + Disability) is to team up young Swiss people with disabilities with open-minded companies that seek apprentices. The exchange currently lists more than 200 open apprenticeship positions. The apprenticeship position exchange has been online since June 2016 – registering early successes. Says Simon Müller, project manager of "Lehre + Handicap" at the MyHandicap Foundation: "So far, we know of three apprenticeship positions that were filled by young people with disabilities thanks to our service."

Students with disabilities also receive a lot of support and advice at the Technical University (TU) of Dortmund: in 2001, it created the Department of Disabilities and Studies (Bereich Behinderung und Studium, DoBuS), which is both a counseling service, a translation service for the adaptation of study materials and workspaces for visually impaired students as well as a pool of auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities. Students can obtain individual counseling and support in applying for integration assistance such as technical aids or assistants for instance. Depending on the disability, it may also be necessary to apply for compensation for disadvantages in course work and examinations – for instance, extra space or additional time.

Having said that, the department also specifically identifies and addresses structural issues and obstacles. For instance, the DoBuS team converts study materials into different types of media, so that visually impaired and blind students are also able to freely utilize them during course instruction. Structural barriers are also eliminated: the entire University is scheduled to be gradually equipped with a guidance system for blind students.

In addition, every year the TU Dortmund also offers a program for students with disabilities or chronic illnesses to try out the university. For three days, they can participate in course instruction to get a first impression of what studies might look like. In doing so, they are able to get answers to many questions such as, how are the acoustics in the lecture hall? Am I physically able to cope with everyday life at the University? How do I organize my disability-related additional study needs?

But all that glitters is not gold. In view of the upcoming Participation Law (Bundesteilhabegesetz), the German Student Union offers this criticism in a statement. The Union fears that students with disabilities who are currently still receiving integration benefits and services, could lose these very benefits in the near future. They could thus be faced with exclusion versus inclusion.

People with disabilities in management positions

The reality on the primary labor market is also often still frightening: companies with 20 or more employees must hire at least 5 percent of people with severe disabilities. Yet current figures show that 95 percent of German companies buy their way out of this regulation. Overall, only 16 percent of people with disabilities work outside of sheltered workshops for the disabled.

That is why the recent foundation of the German Association "Executives with Disabilities" seems all the more important. The foundation of this association was supported by the "Leadership Berlin – Network Responsibility" organization. Janis McDavid is one of those people who was actively involved in the run-up. "Due to time constraints, I deliberately passed on a boardroom position in this election. Having said that, I continue to take an active role in the founding team and assist wherever I can," says McDavid. Among others, the founding board members include Dr. Peter Sdorra, Sascha Lang, Christian Habl and Detlef Kahl as well as seven other founding members.

The primary goal of the association is to serve as a communication platform for executive managers with disabilities. All active members also want to effectively counteract the often deficit-based perspective of disability. After all, companies are even less likely to expect people with disabilities to handle leadership positions than jobs without this type of responsibility. Many of the association members draw on first-hand experiences – whether that‘s Janis McDavid, who is a motivational speaker, book author and works as the director of a non-profit organization, or Patricia Carl, president of the "German Association of Little People and Their Families". Her full-time job is at the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and she knows what it’s like not to be taken seriously because of her size.

To handle these reservations in the future, the Federal Association is dedicated to lobbying for the interests and needs of managers with disabilities by offering educational opportunities and by being a communication platform – in the hope of achieving more inclusion in our society.

Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)

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