What Netflix’s Rita can teach us about the challenges to implement the right to inclusive education

by Julia Biermann

The definition of inclusive education, as entailed in the General Comment on Article 24 UN CRPD, offers an ambitious vision for the global change of education systems. This vision, however, not only challenges “old ways” of segregated special schooling, but often also attempts of inclusive schooling. The Netflix series “Rita” vividly captures this conundrum and, even more, provokes viewers to ask: does inclusive schooling require to partially separate students with special needs from their peers in special classrooms?

According to the recently released General Comment on Article 24 UN CRPD, inclusive education demands that all educational environments include and serve the needs of all students. From a position of moral and legal authority, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines within this document the right to inclusive education accordingly as »a process that transforms culture, policy and practice in all educational environments to accommodate the differing needs of individual students, together with a commitment to remove the barriers that impede that possibility« (paragraph 9). Though setting clear expectations for the direction of educational change on a global scale, one could say that this vision is overloaded with vagueness. Too vague to alter the desired effects in schools?

Here, Rita comes into play; a free-spirited Danish teacher starring the eponymous Netflix series. Troubled by the intricacies of life and school, Rita fights courageously for her students, most often in rather unconventional ways. In terms of inclusion, this becomes evident in Season 3 which thematically deals with the politically backed, though troublesome, process of – as they say in the series – »integrating inclusion students with learning disabilities«. Not only is this process poorly resourced, it also pushes the limits of solidarity of nearly all involved parties; e.g. teachers, pupils and parents alike complain that »inclusion students« disrupt the class and thus slow down the other students‘ learning. To fight the resulting school-wide »inclusion blues«, Rita – a passionate inclusive education advocate – uses some of the little additional funding to create an extra space for the inclusion students in the school’s basement. This space allows them to retreat occasionally from the regular classroom. In addition, Rita collects donations for one student who wishes to return to a special school.

Given the actual circumstances, one could argue that this pragmatic solution responds to the needs of all students; in fact, the »inclusion students« are happy to have this space of their own. But, does this solution also correspond to the General Comment’s vision of transforming school culture at large? To be precise, does the occasional or partial separation of pupils with »special needs« respond to their individual needs, or does it, unnecessarily, establish barriers that prevent inclusive education?

Instead of answering this question, I want to make it the object of analysis, i.e. analysing the gap between inclusive education rhetoric and actual implementation practices in more detail. For that reason, I refer to the concept of the interregnum.

Originally used to denote the period of transition between two rulers, Gramsci has broadened and deepened this concept in his “Prison Notebooks”. Accordingly, the interregnum refers to the transition between two social orders that is characterised by morbid phenomena and a fundamental institutional crisis, summarised in the much-quoted key statement: ‘The old is dying, yet the new cannot be born’. (see also Zygmunt Baumann 2013)

It is not difficult to link this concept to the analysis at hand. Article 24 UN CRPD legally requires states to fundamentally change education systems and guarantee that all educational facilities can accommodate the needs of all students. This transition, however, »contains more friction than flows« (Levitt and Merry 2009, 448), because we witness globally the continuation or even expansion of special schools and classrooms (for Germany e.g. Klemm 2013). This trend is also reflected in the Committees Concluding Observations on State Party Reports. Overall, this paradoxical development points to an institutional crisis of schooling caused by the human right to inclusive education. For me, this institutional crisis can be traced to one particular aspect: The difficult role of (partial) separation in the wake of the inclusive imperative.

In conclusion, while segregated special schooling loses its legitimacy with Article 24 UN CPRD, the vision of inclusive education as ‘one classroom for all’ is far from being a reality. Even more, it has the power to plunge education systems into an institutional crisis. The question that remains is how to deal with this situation. For me, to openly acknowledge the “inclusion blues” would be a first step towards a deliberative process to realise inclusive education. Why? Because it would allow to advocate for inclusive education while at the same time accepting the challenges of implementing this fundamental human right – just as Rita did.

A Compilation of UN Documents on Disability and Education

Lessons Learned and a “Hidden Treasure”

by Julia Biermann

Recently, I compiled a corpus of documents released by UN bodies that thematically deal with disability and education. This endeavour not only taught me lessons on the practicability of UN document search in general, but has also led to a “hidden treasure” which could be recaptured in the Post-2015 debate.

First, to the practical aspects of collecting thematic-based UN documents. I used different search engines and each proved to be useful in specific areas. A search via UNBISNET United Nations Bibliographic Information System is useful to open up the field and to get a broad overview, because it allows searching for documents, speeches or voting records by title, author, country or subject, including the possibility to match each of these items. Depending on how specific the search items are, the results, however, can be quite overwhelming. I felt the search via ODS Official Document Search more useful for content related searches as the search can include and exclude exact words or phrases of the title or body and in addition offers several filters – UN bodies, commission and years. UN Documents is the fastest and most convenient way if the specific document symbol is already know. For human rights related topics and searches I can recommend two search engines: the Universal Human Rights Index, which covers the UN human rights mechanisms and offers country-specific human rights information, and the Human Rights Documents, which allows searching by body and session. To find documents in other than the six official languages, the UN German Translation Section, for example, offers a wealth of translated documents from the UN bodies and on specific themes.

Using these tools led to 128 documents in my search on disability and education related documents, which was restricted to resolutions and reports released by the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and the Human Rights Council. Especially two documents caught my interest, because they are no longer present in current debates on disability and education, but indeed worth noting.

First, the 2002 study Human Rights and Disability which was based on the initiative of the Commission on Human rights and was conducted by Gerard Quinn and Theresia Degener. This study paved the way towards connecting human rights and disability through exploring provisions in different UN conventions and mechanisms. Thus, the study offers quite an instructive overview about the historical way that finally led to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). Between 2002 and 2008 several documents took up this study (A/HRC/7/61, A/HRC/4/75, E/CN.4/2005/82, E/CN.4/2003/82, E/CN.4/RES/2002/61).

For me, the real “hidden treasure” is the 2004 Report on the Right to Education of Special Rapporteur Vernor Muñoz Villalobos (E/CN.4/2005/50). In this report he suggests to use the concept “persons with different capacities” instead of frameworks that center on disability. He critiques that disability-centered frameworks overly treat persons as victims, underestimate their abilities and fail to impose the obligations to change on education systems rather than individuals. Interestingly, however, the Special Rapporteur`s 2005 report on Girls` Right to Education (E/CN.4/2006/45) refers only once to capacity (the capacity of all to respect and exercise human rights) and three times to girls and children with disabilities (their exclusion from education and respectively the formulation of inclusive policies). The 2007 report on The Right of Persons with Disabilities to Education (A/HRC/4/29) speaks twice about capacities of persons with disabilities and efforts to build these.

Unfortunately, I haven´t found an answer why the 2004 proposal did not create momentum. But, I found the concept “persons with different capacities” quite compelling, as it contributes to overcome the distinction, and eventually institutionalisation, of two worlds – one for persons with disabilities and one for those without disabilities.

Accordingly, this framework allows to (scientifically) reflect on current debates about a disability-inclusive Post-2015 agenda (A/RES/69/142, A/RES/68/3) and its related education goals (Incheon Declaration), either in contrast or in addition to approaches that center around (educational) disability.

To conclude, to look back can indeed be helpful to look forward.

The Creation of Disability through Data Collection and Dissemination of Lists

Or: The Effects of Education for All through Data on All

von Julia Biermann

One question has haunted me for a long time: Is it necessary to solidify disability as a classification factor to overcome stigmatisation and marginalisation due to disability? To approach this question I refer to the new Post-2015 development agenda, in particular the education related goals and the formulation of indicators that would enable to measure respective progress. First, I argue that this paradox – solidifying disability to diminish its impact – derives from the bureaucratic logic of the international system that requires that persons with disabilities show up in its lists. Second, I argue that the Post-2015 world will thus “create” more people with disabilities in order to fight their stigmatisation and marginalisation. My point is that lists, compiled to prove indicators, not only produce legitimacy, but also disability.

Currently, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) has launched a global consultation on Post-2015 education indicators for the reshaped education goal of ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030. This goal is enshrined in the so-called Muscat Agreement and was adopted during the 2014 Global Meeting on Education for All in Oman. To monitor future progress, this project necessarily requires data, for example on enrolment and completion of schooling but also on abstentions and early dropouts. Furthermore, data will also need to be disaggregated for example by gender, location, socio-economic background and dis/ability, because the goal targets all (!), thus including those who face a disadvantage, difficulty or disability. To be able to evaluate whether the goal and its seven targets are met by international programs and funding, the realities of schooling need to be transformed into lists and are thus incorporated into the bureaucratic logic of inter/national organisations and their accounting systems.

Lists comprise indicator-based data collections, which require certain models and concepts – for example of disability. Until today, however, only little data is available on persons with disabilities, because of two relevant aspects: First, persons with disabilities were and still are overwhelmingly marginalised and neglected at the societal and policy level all over the globe, which however started to change in the wake of the UN-Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Secondly, what actually counts as a disability is ultimately tied to the context itself. Accordingly, the UN Statistic Division states: Due to differences in the concepts and methods used to identify persons with disabilities, prevalence rates should not be compared across countries”. But how can we then compare the education of children with disabilities within the post-2015 inclusive development framework?

The paper “Towards indicators for a post-2015 education framework” elaborates on the possibilities and challenges “to globally track the targets (which) should ideally meet a range of standards that ensure technical strength, feasibility, frequency of reporting, cross-national comparability and availability over time”. The paper also refers to difficulties in assessing disability and thus does – at this stage – not contain related indicators. Accordingly, the currently discussed indicators do not allow to assess the inclusiveness of education systems, because this would not only require to know how many children with a disability have access to, are in and complete schooling, but also which children do have an impairment or disability. It seems as if this circumstance constitutes a deadlock to the bureaucratic logic itself – the need of objective data on disability vs. the ultimate context-dependency of disability concepts and data.

Nonetheless, global monitoring requires global indicators based on concepts that then become global as well. At this point, Rottenburg`s work on “Far-fetched Facts” gives inspiring insights into the “Secret of Lists” and their ultimate consequences:

“A list is a record of things or abstract statements that have been removed from their context and written down one after another as facts. The classification system and selection principle according to which the facts in a list are chosen is not included in the list itself. (…) These observations seem trivial at first glance. This is because the classification and selection work that precedes every list has successfully been rendered invisible. Using the language of Mary Douglas, the classification system that the list is based on has become so well institutionalized that it is erroneously viewed as being a characteristic of the thing itself.” (p.137).

 Against this background, I argue that indicator-based lists and surveys not only bring out and solidify disability, but transform disability into a necessary and inescapable attribution. The attempt to make societies more inclusive and in which disability becomes less of a barrier requires to emphasise disability even more. Thus, the question remains whether this attribution might lead to more visibility, emancipation and also more resources or whether it instead increases stigmatization. This paradox needs to be carefully examined in each context, project and survey – as each of it creates disability.

The UIS global consultation runs until 30 January 2015.

Was kommt nach 2015?

Ein Kurzinterview mit Janina Hasse-Mohsine, Second Secretary Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations, zu den Ergebnissen des High Level Meetings on Disability and Development

Am 23. September 2013 fand das High Level Meeting on Disability and Development der UN-Generalversammlung statt. Ziel dieses Treffens war es, die Rechte von Menschen mit Behinderungen ins Zentrum der Debatte um die MDG-Nachfolgeziele zu rücken. Das Abschlussdokument verankert daher eine barrierefreie und inklusive Entwicklungszusammenarbeit.

Die Vereinten Nationen haben zum ersten Mal ein High Level Meeting (HLM) dem Thema Behinderung  und Entwicklung gewidmet. Ein historisches Ereignis? Warum?

Das HLMDD (High Level Meeting on Disability and Development) ein historisches Ereignis zu nennen wäre übertrieben. Die Tatsache, dass es jetzt zum ersten Mal ein hochrangiges Treffen im Rahmen der VN zu diesem Thema gab ist eher eine natürliche Konsequenz der Dynamik, die das Thema in den letzten Jahren als Ganzes gewonnen hat und die insbesondere durch die Behindertenrechtskonvention in Gang gesetzt wurde. Diese ist das eigentliche historische Ereignis, welches jetzt in die verschiedenen internationalen Prozesse einwirkt. Da die Behindertenrechtskonvention einen eigenen Artikel zur Internationalen Zusammenarbeit enthält ist es natürlich, dass man in der Internationalen Gemeinschaft nun gemeinsam konkretisiert was dies genau bedeutet. Hierfür sind solche Treffen sehr gut geeignet.

Das Motto des HLM lautete „The way forward: A disability-inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond“. Zukunftsfähige Entwicklung soll inklusiv gestaltet werden. Was muss sich dafür ändern?

Das wichtigste Instrument für eine zukunftsfähige behinderteninklusive Entwicklung ist sicherlich weiterhin die Behindertenrechtskonvention. Die Themenfelder Bildung, Gesundheit, soziale Sicherung und Beschäftigung haben für eine systematische Inklusion in die Gesellschaft eine besondere Rolle und wurden als solche auch auf dem HLMDD bestätigt. Bisher gibt es aber kaum oder nur sehr unzureichende statistische Daten über die Situation von Menschen mit Behinderungen, was es erschwert sich gemeinsame internationale Ziele zu geben, welche die Inklusion von Menschen mit Behinderungen sinnvoll berücksichtigen. Das hochrangige Treffen der VN zum Thema Behinderung und Entwicklung hat jetzt einen Prozess vorgegeben, wie die Staatengemeinschaft dieses Thema weiter im Kontext einer Post-2015 Agenda diskutieren möchte. So wird der Generalsekretär (GS) aufgefordert in seinem periodischen Bericht zu „Behinderung und Entwicklung“ Empfehlungen für weitere Schritte zur Implementierung des Abschlussdokumentes im Kontext der Post-2015 Entwicklungsagenda auszusprechen und der Präsident der Generalversammlung wird aufgefordert in der kommenden Generalversammlung (ab September 2014) den Status und Fortschritt für die Realisierung der Entwicklungsziele für Menschen mit Behinderungen weiterzuverfolgen.

Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, addresses the General Assembly’s HLMDD. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, addresses the General Assembly’s HLMDD.
UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Welche Rolle spielt Deutschland in diesem Prozess?

In der internationalen Diskussion ist Deutschland zunächst einmal nur eines von 193 Mitgliedsstaaten. Gleichwohl hat Deutschland mit Blick auf eine inklusive Entwicklungszusammenarbeit eine hervorstehende Rolle zusammen mit Ländern wie Australien, Finnland und Norwegen. Als erstes Land in Europa hat Deutschland einen eigenen Aktionsplan zur Inklusion von Menschen mit Behinderungen in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit verabschiedet und bringt das Thema auch immer wieder in internationale Verhandlungen ein.

Das Interview führte Julia Biermann.

The Role of Inclusion in the upcoming Post-2015 Development Agenda

Last week, representatives from more than 150 countries met in the UN Headquarters in New York City to commence the Sixth Conference of State Parties (COSP) to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In accordance with Article 40 of the Convention, annual meetings, the COSP, are held to discuss the implementation of the CRPD since it’s coming into force in 2008.


The CRPD marks a major shift in the understanding and perception of disability: persons with disabilities are no longer “objects” of charity or medical treatment, but “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming these, making decisions on their own and being active members of society (cf. UN Enable 2012). Limitations created by disability are therefore no “problem” of the person but rather a problem of barriers created by society. CRPD`s fundamental goal is to advocate for full inclusion, characterized by accessibility and participation on an equal basis. More information on the uniqueness of the CRPD can be found in my recent blog post here.

I had the opportunity to participate in the COSP and would like to share some thoughts with you: First, on the principle of inclusion in the overarching discussion, and secondly on its role in the upcoming post-2015 development agenda.

During the general debate, more than seventy representatives highlighted their countries’ efforts to align the CRPD with state law and policies. All statements can be found here. Striking for me was that during the overall debate, inclusion was debated more in the sense of integrating persons with disabilities in project planning and programs. But integration is not inclusion! Integration characterizes a process in which a group, considered as a minority or as being different, is moved back into the mainstream of society under the condition to fit into the existing environment. Inclusion, on the other hand, depicts a process that creates a barrier-free environment on the fundamental basis of equality and acceptance.  Even though accessibility, defined as a barrier-free physical and social environment, was highly discussed by the present delegates, the prime focus was on infrastructure. However, the discussion did not highlight barriers imposed by disabling attitudes and the perception of persons with disabilities as “the others”. But why is impairment not perceived as a physical peculiarity like hair and eye colour? Why did and still does this lead to the construction of separated places like special schools, homes or workplaces? In this sense, a person is not disabled but becomes disabled and deliberately excluded.

It is therefore astonishing that inclusion, the overarching goal of the CRPD, was discussed in a relatively narrow sense, basically not moving beyond a focus on infrastructural issues. Thus, the great potential to discuss deeply ingrained values and perceptions of normality and disability was not really exploited.


This leads me to the second aspect on which I want to share some thoughts with you.  When Chairman H.E. Mr. Macharia Kamau, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Kenyan Mission to the UN, gave his final statement, he depicted this conference as the building block for the upcoming High-Level Meeting (HLM) on Disability and Development on 23 September 2013. During the HLM, the cornerstones for the upcoming post-2015 development agenda will be laid: sustainability and inclusion. After Rio+20, it is unquestionable that the post-MDG development agenda needs to be sustainable. But, as General Assembly Resolution 63/150 states: “No internationally agreed development goals could be genuinely achieved without including the over 1 billion persons with disabilities in development”.  Therefore, during this HLM the necessity will be stressed that future development goals should be aimed to create a sustainable, accessible and enabling environment that serves the functional needs of the whole community. The draft document is available here.  And exactly this inclusive perspective is the great potential as it entails equitable development for all. Hence, with this approach, the two areas of development and human rights are linked in one process. One of the challenges in doing so is related to data. Development programs are built on profound data and measurable indicators, which are, for several reasons, essentially missing when it comes to the needs and challenges of persons with disabilities. Fundamentally, this starts with the question how disability can be measured in a census, especially considering the CRPD`s social model of disability as a mismatch between individual needs and the environment offered. So, the question can no longer be “Do you have a disability?”  Instead, it has to be: “Do you have difficulties in seeing, hearing, concentrating? Because of a physical, mental or emotional health condition, do you have difficulty communicating, moving around, etc.?” For further information see the work of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics.

In sum, now it is time to not only take up the responsibility to write about inclusion, but to actually do something about it. And this can only be achieved when we tackle not only infrastructural issues but focus on social barriers imposed by attitudes. Therefore, at least we need to question what we perceive as normal and how we deal with difference. Farouq, a character in Teju Cole`s recent novel “Open City”, puts it this way: “Malcolm X recognized that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value” (p. 104). To appreciate difference and remove barriers imposed on their basis are the cores of inclusion. And this puts responsibility on every single one us to make inclusion reality.

Human Rights and Inclusion – UN`s leading role

Yannis Vardakastanis (foreground right) of International Disability Alliance addresses the CRPD State Party Conference, (c) UN Photo/ Rick Bajornas

Have you ever heard of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)? I give you three reasons why you should have.

Starting with some data. The CRPD is the fastest-negotiated human rights treaty ever. It took only four years of negotiations (2002 – 2006) until the General Assembly adopted the CRPD. As of October 2012, 154 states have already signed and 124 ratified the Convention.  What makes this Convention even more necessary is that more than one billion people in the world experience disabilities, as the first WHO World Report on Disability revealed this year. The majority of disabilities are gained during lifetime, not at birth.

Getting deeper into the substance of the matter. The CRPD marks a major shift in the understanding and perception of disability, from a medical to a social model. Persons with disabilities are no „objects“ of charity or medical treatment, but „subjects“ with rights, who are capable of claiming their rights, making decisions on their own and being active members of society (cf. UN Enable 2012). Limitations created by disability are therefore no “problem” of the person but rather a problem of barriers in society. To advocate for full inclusion is therefore the fundamental goal of this Convention.

Coming to a so far unique feature. The development of the CRPD and the corresponding negotiation process is characterized by the principle ”Nothing about us, without us”. The participation of civil society, particularly of Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs), was ensured during the whole process, as it will be during implementation and monitoring.

Accordingly, the Chair of the International Disability Alliance (IDA) was, besides UN representatives, one of the opening speakers at this years State Party Conference, which commenced mid-September at turtle bay.  Mr. Vardakastanis, IDA Chair, shed a special light on UN´s leading role once again. After negotiating and passing the CRPD, he asked the UN to incorporate CRPD principles into UN conferences and meetings as well as its human resources policies. Only by promoting the CRPD would it be ensured that it does not disappear from the collective consciousness. Delegates also stressed the critical need for the UN to act as a “real, practical and daily advocate” for those who had once been all but invisible on the world stage (cf. Press Release GA/HR 5106). “We must keep this steady pace to meet the mark of universal ratification in the near future,” said Mårten Grunditz (Sweden), President of the Conference.

The focus of this years Conference was on „Making the CRPD count for Children and Women“. Furthermore, the program included the election of nine new members of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is composed of 18 independent experts who monitor the implementation process and examine state party reports as well as individual complaints.

Not only the UN should act by example, every one can. The first step is to know about the CRPD. So, spread the word.

For more information visit: http://www.unenable.org and http://www.einfach-teilhaben.de