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Belgium condemned for excluding intellectually disabled children from mainstream education

Federation Wallonia - Brussels Minister of Obligatory Education Caroline Desir pictured during a press conference of the education ministers of the Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles, Thursday 27 August 2020 in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO THIERRY ROGE)
10:15 04/02/2021

The European Committee of Social Rights has publicly condemned Belgium for failing to include children with intellectual disabilities in mainstream education.

The decision followed a complaint by a collective of parents, represented by Inclusion Europe and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), with the support of Unia and the Delegate General for Children's Rights. After four years of legal battles, the Committee has now ruled in favour of the claimant organisations and thus condemns Belgium, and more particularly the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, for the lack of efforts made for the educational inclusion of pupils with intellectual disabilities.

The European Committee on Social Rights concluded in its judgement that the right to an inclusive education is not guaranteed in Belgium. "We've been waiting for this decision for four years,” said Thomas Dabeux of the non-profit organisation Inclusion Europe. “We really hope that it can bring about concrete change."

In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, only 98 type 2 children are integrated into an ordinary school. This figure represents just 1% of total integrations, which amounted to 6709 in 2019. However, it is estimated that 3% of children have an intellectual disability.

Type 2 refers to children who, along with being considered gifted in comparison to same-age peers, are formally diagnosed with one or more disabilities, usually but not uniquely associated with learning disabilities.

Children with intellectual disabilities and their parents face several challenges in Belgium, including the fact that many schools flat-out reject them from the enrolment process. In addition, there is a real lack of human and financial resources allocated to schools to care for the children, parents are also put under severe financial strain when it comes to paying for specialist instruction, and evaluation methods in the classroom which put the disabled child on a par with their peers causes stress for students and teachers alike.

While these issues lead to many schools refusing to take children with intellectual disabilities, those which do often find it too hard to continue their education and then redirect them to specialist centres. Because of this, the European Committee on Social Rights states that Belgium’s teaching is too segregated. Special education should be the exception and the inclusion of intellectually disabled children should be the rule. In Belgium, however, the opposite is true.

Reacting to the judgement, Walloon education minister Caroline Désir promised that Belgium’s condemnation would lead to reforms. "It's never nice to be condemned on a subject like this,” she said. “This proves that much more should and can be done. The complaint was filed four years ago, when I was not yet a minister. Since that complaint, several things have already been done, including the establishment of inclusive classes. But we still want to strengthen these measures to go much further in this area."

The minister promised to organise a roundtable discussion soon with all major players in the case. In addition, a reform of the entire integration system is under way. But there is a lot of concern about this reform on the ground at the moment.

Until now, children who were integrated into an ordinary school could be accompanied four hours a week by a special education teacher. But soon, this system will be replaced. Instead, clusters of multidisciplinary teams, including special needs teachers, physiotherapists, and speech therapists, will be spread equally throughout the territory of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. "At the moment, the means to care for these children are very poorly distributed,” added Désir. “Some schools do a lot of integration and others none at all. The goal is to rebalance this so that wherever we are, every child can be cared for."

Dominique Paquot, the director of the Singelijn School in Brussels, where one in 10 children has a disability, said that this reform has raised more questions than it has provided answers. "I'm afraid it's a real step backwards,” he said. “In the past, every child in integration automatically received four hours per week of help from a specialist teacher. I don't think these clusters will allow us to continue to benefit from these human resources."

“This idea just leaves us perplexed,” added Inclusion’s Thomas Dabeux. “It is not clear that these clusters will provide a better support to these children. This leaves families in a state of insecurity and uncertainty."

Caroline Désir moved to reassure parents and teachers alike. "I understand that change is scary, but the goal is really to improve the support of children and teachers. In the long run, it is possible that schools that were very inclusive will feel a difference, but it is in order to rebalance the means between schools. This will happen very gradually."

"Ordinary education teams are not always trained to support children with special needs. The burden on them should not be underestimated. That's why their support is paramount, and that's what we really want to improve" she added.

Nevertheless, all the actors stress a real willingness to engage in dialogue. "It is hoped that this conviction will be the starting point for a real transition plan to an inclusive school," Inclusion concluded in its statement.

Written by Nick Amies