Dignity, discrimination and accommodation in education
By Thiandi Groof, International and Human Rights Master of Laws (LL.M)
I am Thiandi Grooff, 31 years old. I just finished my advanced Masters in International and European Human Rights law in Leiden University. In this curriculum they didn’t pay attention to the Convention on Rights for People with Disabilities (CRPD), but general discrimination law was very interesting and helpful for my thesis. I live in my own apartment in Amsterdam with 24/7 personal assistance. Communication for me is difficult, because I need a facilitator for it and facilitators are difficult to find.
I hope to be able to contribute more to ALLFIE and for the inclusive education movement in the Netherlands. Alas, the Dutch movement is small, and I miss a group like Quiet Riot here.
Without inclusive education, emancipation will never emerge.
In order to finish the masters programme of European and International human rights law, I wrote the thesis ‘Dutch legal protection of the right to education for children with disabilities’.
My conclusion was that there is no legal protection of this right for children with disabilities.
This thesis challenged me to think about the relation between dignity, discrimination and accommodation in education. The pain that I always had felt, when again and again I was excluded from mainstream schools, I now saw described by scholars like Degener (Degener, T. Disability in a human rights context 19. Laws 2016, 5, 35); and in court cases like Brown versus the Board of education (347 U.S. 483 §494 (1954)). In this last case the US Court concluded that ‘separate is not equal’, because of the violation of dignity when a person is excluded on whatever ground. This made my hurt feelings touchable and hopefully these written words make it easier to convince people that exclusion is a violence for the dignity of all people who are excluded, even when the medical model declares that segregation in special institutes will deliver them better services. The human rights model requests that these services must be delivered in mainstream settings.
What is dignity?
Dignity is the right to be valued, respected and welcomed in the community. Every form of discrimination is an infliction of this dignity and a devaluation of the person because the discriminating institute, people or community, judges you not to be valuable enough to be a member of their community.
The right to dignity, without discrimination, is the central principle in the human rights treaties. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the CRPD, signed and ratified by the UK, elaborates on this principle of dignity and other principles in Article 3, which are:
(a) Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons. Inherent dignity means that every human has the right to dignity because he/she is human. From not giving this dignity follows that the provider or community declares you not to be human (enough).
(c) Full and effective participation and inclusion in society; And providing the support or accommodation to achieve this, like roads to a faraway house, wheelchair ramps, free entrance for the necessary assistant.
(d) Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
(e) Equality of opportunity;
(g) Equality between men and women;
(h) Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.
Is all selection discrimination?
This is a good question. If I prefer one person to be my partner over another one, is that discrimination? No matter yes or no, the other person will feel rejected. Have you ever applied for a job and not been selected? You will feel rejected. It is normal to feel rejected and less valuable to the person selected. Therefore, each society and community must try to avoid selection where it is possible. In education it is possible to avoid selection.
If selection is not necessary, then selection is discrimination.
Telling parents that their child in a wheelchair cannot come because there is no elevator, is selecting the non-wheelchair users over the wheelchair users and is discrimination. The school must find a solution, preferably an elevator.
Does racial discrimination intersect with selection in education?
An important argument to abandon selection in education is the, often hidden, indirect discrimination. Statistics in the US and in the Netherlands show that non-whites are overrepresented in special education.
What is reasonable accommodation?
The CRPD treaty points out sharply that in order to show this respect and dignity for every community member and to avoid discrimination, the institution, community and the persons belonging to it, must accommodate the needs of their fellows, to the amount that they can participate on an equal foot with everyone. It is natural for a parent or friend to console a crying baby or a crying friend. This is accommodation. It is accepted that the government build dykes to provide safety against high waters. This is accommodation. For wheelchair users it means, for example, building ramps and wide enough doors. Schools must apply universal design for accessibility (see article 2 CRPD) and universal design for teaching. Read, for example, Reading Rockets Universal Design for Learning (2018), online. This means that schools must be built in such a way that they are accessible also for deaf/blind/wheelchair using persons. The teaching methods must be such that they easily can adapt to various levels and learning methods for each child. Cooperative learning is such a method, as is creating opportunities to learn from and imitate peers. The P.E teacher knows how this works because often she/he will ask a student to demonstrate the required action, instead of the teacher demonstrating the action.
The better the universal design, the less need for accommodation, but of course specific accommodation like braille computers will remain necessary.
When you don’t get this accommodation, the government gives the message to the community and to you, that you are not valuable enough to belong. Not providing this accommodation is discrimination, according to the definition of the CRPD in Article 2. This is the difference with discrimination on the grounds of race; abolishing discrimination on the ground of race requires a change in attitude, abolishing discrimination on the grounds of disability requires more. It requires not only a change in attitude, but also requires spending money and energy on accommodating the diverse needs of persons with disabilities in order to function on an equal foot with everyone. Often it requires a change in the structure, like transforming the provider centered educational system into a student-centered system, accompanied with merging the special schools into the mainstream schools. It can be done as the Newham story has shown (Jordan & Goodey, 2002, Human Rights and School change: The Newham Story. ISBN-1-872001-25-4)
In the Netherlands, there are laws to protect you against discrimination. Disability, however, is not only about being different; it is also about needing specific accommodation. Not providing accommodation amounts to discrimination and to an infliction on dignity.
This obligation to provide accommodation is less understood in the Netherlands. All kinds of reasons are put forward for not providing accommodation. When a school decides that the trouble of accommodating the child with a disability surpasses the benefit for the school and subsequently refuses to admit the child, the board is protected by Dutch laws. If accommodating public transport cost too much money, Dutch law accepts this argument for denial of accommodation.
The important question is of course: Is it ethical to present dilemmas to service providers?
Is it ethical to present dilemmas to service providers like schools, to decide which option should prevail: the right to education with the cost of accommodation on one side or the avoidance of the cost of accommodation by denying the accommodation, and thus excluding the person who needs the accommodation from their community?
My answer is no.
Where dignity and discrimination are involved, there should be no choice. Human rights should be paramount and established in laws. Fulfilling the rights of Disabled persons is the litmus test for civilization, because it requires not only respect but also efforts, transformation of the structure and sometimes money to let them function on equal foot with others. Countries have signed and ratified the CRPD, now they must act on it and provide this accommodation in order to give persons with disabilities the enjoyment of the right to dignity in education.
This past week I visited my old school in Porretta Terme, Italy. Only two bidelle, janitors, were the same as twenty years earlier. All the other staff and teachers work elsewhere or are retired. Nevertheless, I was welcomed as an old friend, although I couldn’t express myself, overwhelmed as I was by emotions. I felt dignified by them and this emotion means a lot to me. It makes me feel human and valuable. This is the message I want to bring the world. Giving dignity to a person does not cost money and brings love for you and everyone.
What can we do?
For each of us: It is in our power to give dignity to each person by welcoming her or him, independent of how she looks, behaves, her abilities or opinions. Giving this dignity to each other creates love and the solidarity, needed to change laws and society. Emphasizing the value of dignity may change the perspective of policy makers and legislators because everyone knows the hurt of being rejected as a partner, solicitor or sports(wo)man.
Let’s start our dignity giving future.
The lassie and her load
The lassie in these lines strides,
Undisturbed by her load
Mirthful, radiating like gold,
Bravely through life
In spite of barriers
Which sometimes act like knives.
I feel like that lass
I carry the load, but not alone
I see the people near my home.
Willing to share my load
And, as a team on this capricious road
to learn how to modify the weight
into a valuable and precious freight.
My team, the neighbours from around
included those, with whom it rubs on other grounds.
commit their better half and clutch
to give a helping hand without a grudge
because everyone can use a nudge
to thrive in dignity
ah, such a beautiful symphony.
As such the lassie with her load
Forges the neighbours on her road
into a community
with a joined grand potency
Which helps me to progress
as a strong, proud-hearted lass.
©Thiandi Grooff Dec 2021, translated from Dutch Jan 2022.original title: De deerne en haar dracht