Disability disclosure in education – good or bad?
Inclusive education in practice
Living in a world mainly constructed for the able-bodied, there is often little flexibility on when and how people with disabilities disclose their disabilities. Disability disclosure often comes with worries of discrimination, unfair judgements and poor inclusive support to those in need.
How can disability disclosure be handled fairly and effectively? In many countries, there is still a consensus to reach. In this blog post, we look at situations and views of disability disclosure and inclusive education at school and university in different countries including Switzerland.
More medical students disclosing their disabilities in the US
Schools and universities are miniatures of society. They are the best places to learn and practice inclusion so that it becomes part of our lives. For the medical sector, researchers pointed out that the best way to reduce stigma and stereotypes about people with disabilities is to have more medical students and thus also physicians with all kind of disabilities. To achieve this, everyone should have equal access and opportunities for education and professional training.
To investigate how to improve accessibility and inclusion in medical education, researchers from the US conducted various studies. Between 2016 and early 2019, they surveyed medical schools and interviewed medical learners and physicians with disabilities about their experiences.
The research reveals an increase from 2.7% to 4.6% of students with disabilities in just three years at the 64 medical schools surveyed. The increase suggests a possible improvement in accommodations and recognition of people with disabilities in medical education. Some students expressed that they feel more comfortable to open up about their disability and their needs during the admission interviews, when the institutes show openness and effort to make accommodations for students with disabilities.
Improvement in structural accessibility on campus is only one of the basic criteria for successful inclusive education. The above research reveals other influential factors such as clear accessible policies and peer support networks which can better support students with disabilities. For example, many people still feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities. They are uncertain of the appropriate ways to interact with their colleagues with disabilities.
To support adequately the professional development of people with disabilities, the research suggests measures like integrating disability inclusion knowledge and respectful language into curricula and pedagogy. Promoting a disability-friendly culture like normalizing help-seeking behaviors would also make it more welcoming for students with disabilities.
Ireland: no enquiries about children's disabilities before enrolment
In Ireland, they have a different opinion on promoting inclusive education. Last year, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) formally recommended Ireland's Department of Education to ban schools from asking parents during enrolment about their children's disabilities by 2021. The recommendation aims to help the country implement the "total inclusion" model, where all children are educated in mainstream schools, regardless of their level of intelligence and disability.
Although there are different views on the feasibility of this model, people generally agree that all students should be educated together on one school campus instead of separate ones. In October 2019, NCSE released a progress report of policy advice on special schools and classes. According to some studies, students with special educational needs seem to have better short and long-term outcomes when educated in mainstream settings instead of special educational placements. There also seems to be a positive impact on children's development for those who attend inclusive preschools rather than special preschools. However, more research is needed to draw a definitive conclusion.
However, schools have expressed their concern about the NCSE recommendation. They consider the disability enquiry before enrollment necessary for them to evaluate their capacity to cater the needs of children. Besides, disability organizations worry that a universally inclusive education system can never happen before sufficient mandatory teacher training is available and before schools change the way they assess their education outcomes.
Inclusive education policy in Switzerland
According to an official statistics, 4.5% of all Swiss pupils in compulsory schooling received support for special educational needs in 2017/18. Among them, more than half (53%) were integrated in standard classes, while 6% attended a special class and 41% a special school.
Education is administered by the 26 cantons in Switzerland; some cantons are more and some are less readily accepting children with special needs into regular schools. Special needs education is offered only upon application and after evaluation by psychological services or other specialists. Each case follows a standardized and comprehensive evaluation procedure that aims to identify the appropriate learning support needed.
Barbara Fäh, Rector of the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education in Zurich, shared her views on inclusive education in an interview with SRF. She thinks it is important to integrate as much as possible but to separate when needed.
"Key is the wellbeing and development of the child. Schools reflect society and will continue to develop in terms of integration for all."
Swiss universities ask for proof of disability
For universities in Switzerland, students with disabilities can usually seek assistance from student services unit before and after their enrollment. Some institutions even have an independent unit to give support to students on all sorts of physical, psychological and administrative challenges. To speed up the process, many units provide clear guidelines on what students with disabilities should prepare before they seek for assistance. Some universities even encourage students to evaluate together how to accommodate their needs best.
In general, it's nice to see Swiss institutions' effort in making their campuses accessible and providing inclusive education for everyone. On the other hand, I wonder how the bureaucracy can be further reduced. For example, at the University of Zurich, students with disabilities are required to provide "credible proof of their impairment" to demonstrate their need for reasonable adjustments and support.
I was rather taken aback by this formulation. From the way they present it, I'm not sure if it's a policy to guarantee a custom-made support or to prevent people from abusing the support services. If it's the latter case, wouldn't it be better to make it an option for institutions to request such a proof if necessary instead of a general requirement for students to submit it? I believe that most students requesting the support services are really in need; it's rather annoying for them to go through another extra procedure just because a small number of people abuse the services. In my view, it would make more sense to ask for a proof only when there is reasonable suspicion for abuse.
What are your experiences with disability disclosure and inclusive education? Do you feel stressed when you have to disclose or proof your disability?