School and disability, between excellence and chronic deficiency

September: in these days, school gates open again all over Italy and, among the students sitting at the desks, there are also more than 235 thousand with a disability (about 3% on the total), almost equally distributed among nursery school, primary school, grammar school and high school. But is the school ready to welcome and support them, so that they can fully exercise their right to education?

Italy is the leading country for school inclusion of disabled students, to the extent that, at the beginning of 2016, it received an official recognition by the UN. Indeed, while they are still present in countries such as Spain and Germany, here in Italy the so-called “special classes” (real ghettos inside the “normal” schools, where students with physical or cognitive disabilities and those who experienced another kind of disadvantage were enclosed) are, now (and luckily), just a past thing, since they were abolished in 1977, when new flexible educational models were introduced, aiming to promote the integration among all the students, beyond their peculiarities, using, where needed, also specialized teachers. The 104/92 law further emphasized the importance of integrating the disabled students of all levels into normal classes.

school and disability

A long way has been walked also as regards removing architectonical barriers, during the years, with more than 80% of schools having stairs and bathrooms suitable for physically disabled people. Things get slightly worse when we look at expedients for sensory disabled people and accessibility of internal and external spaces: only 30% of schools, as a matter of fact, are equipped with visual, acoustic and tactile signage, while a little bit more than 40% has easily accessible paths.

Another not exactly rosy chapter regards those who’d assist students with particularly severe disabilities and special needs teaching assistants, who are essential to ensure access to didactics and inclusion to students with cognitive disabilities. Every year, punctually, there’s a raging controversy because they’re not enough to ensure adequate assistance to all the students who would need it. Unfortunately, there are also issues about their training, often inadequate to the specific needs of the students they’d be supposed to assist. Not to mention the fact that, if being a teacher, more than just a job, is a matter of vocation (or a real “mission”, as some say), that’s even more so for those who, due to their specific role, have to deal with particularly tricky students, often unable to collaborate: without a proper training and if they live their role just as a way to “earn money”, it’s easy to get discouraged, leave students to their own devices, contributing to ghettoize them, instead of including them into the school system, which is the fundamental harbinger of their full and successful inclusion in the community.

“La classe degli asini”: a TV movie about inclusion

I’m not that keen on TV movies and similar stuff, but, when, last night, I tuned my TV in RaiUno to watch “La classe degli asini” (“The classroom of the dunces”), I was pleasantly surprised. For those who missed it, this TV movie tells the story of a fundamental figure in the process of school inclusion for students with disabilities: Mirella Antonione Casale, a teacher and mother of a little girls who was made severely disabled by viral encephalitis. Thanks to the efforts of this brave woman and other colleagues of hers, in the second half of ‘70s, Italy finally overcome (at least, in theory) the infamous “special” or “different” classrooms.

Established by the Gentile reform with the goal to ensure education to students with handicap, those classrooms often ended to become real “ghettos”, where were literally parked also children without any handicap, maybe just because they lived social unrest or due to their “lively” temper. It’s what happens in “La classe degli asini”, where Riccardo, a southern kid with a crippled family, ends up to get enclosed in a sort of “horror boarding school” (where children suffer every kind of violence, both physical and psychological) simply because, in Turin during the economical “boom”, he only speaks dialect and struggles to follow the rules. Mirella and her colleague Felice (who calls to mind the “Dead Poets Society”’s professor Keating) take to heart his case and not just help him leave the boarding school, but also let bring to light the abuses suffered by children there. Furthermore, once she has become the school principal and has come in contact with ANFFAS (the Families of People with Intellectual and/or Relational Disability Association), commits herself to enable children with handicap and those who were previously “refused” to receive the same education (and be treated, on the whole) as the other students. Also thanks to her contribution, in reality, in 1977, through the 517 law, “special classrooms” got suppressed (even though they still survived, de facto, for a few more years, but we’re aware that cultural barriers are hard to overcome!) and students with disability were included into “normal” classroom, supported (when needed) by special needs teachers.

"La classe degli asini" - the cast

The cast of the movie – Picture ©Fabrizio Di Giulio/ RAI Press Office

La classe degli asini” succeeds in extraordinarily dealing with a hard topic, without indulging with pietism and sensitivity, also thanks to Vanessa Incontrada (Mirella) and Flavio Insinna (Felice), but also the young (and great) Giovanni D’Aleo (Riccardo) and Aurora Giovinazzo (Flavia) performances. As Mirella states in the movie, referring to a little-great progress made by Flavia thanks to Riccardo’s help:

“You can turn a lamp on […] To turn it on, you need someone to push that button”

Talking about disability: words matter

Talking about disability can still be often difficult, today. When dealing with this topic, you face embarrassment, discomfort, as if, even just pronouncing “that” word you could bring bad luck upon yourself.

For centuries, people thought that disability (and diseases in general) were, somehow, linked to a “fault” by who was affected by it, a sort of stigma marking someone to keep away. This resulted in the almost total social exclusion of disabled people, hidden by their families (or thrown out of their own home), as if they were a “stain” to hide from the community.

Nowadays, luckily, this prejudice has been largely overcome, at least in the most culturally and economically advanced countries (it’s not by chance that these two things generally go together): there are laws ensuring equal dignity and rights in all the fields to disabled people, from work to personal and private life, there’s a growing awareness about accessibility and need to invest more resources on it for the benefit of the entire community.

Talking about disability

Nevertheless, there are still unfair, and often (even accidentally) offensive habits, when it comes to talk about disability or, even more, deal with someone affected by a disability, both motoric, sensory or psychic. Pity (not intended as the Virgilian pietas), discomfort, inappropriate question even from perfect strangers (“What do you exactly have?”, “Why do you walk this way?”, “Isn’t there anything you can do to…?”), tendency to look at disabled people as if they were children, even though they’re adult. But also, levity, habit to use terms associated to a condition of disability (e. g. “handicapped”, “spastic”, “mongoloid”, and so on) as insults, to deride someone else’s physical or cognitive traits, or to consider a motoric or sensory disabled person as she was necessarily “retarded” (here we have the insult again…) or, however, losing her marbles.

How can we overtake all of this and establish a correct vision, a real disability culture? Two answers come up to my mind for first: school and media.

diversityChildren have a natural inclination not to discriminating the “diverse” ones, unless an adult they trust teaches them to do it: we all have seen children different for culture, race, conditions playing together without any issue, because what they see in the other one is simply someone to play with, not a stranger, a different skin colour, a disability. It’s essential that school helps strengthening this natural inclination to include, promoting continuous exchanging, living together and sharing among able-bodied and disabled children.

mass mediaAlso mass  media can and must have an important role in establishing the disability culture, first of all using the right terms and manner when talking about disability: less “pain TV” and disabled people shown as they were caricatures or freaks, more disabled people in tv shows (even as presenters, in addition to being hosts or spectators, why not?), in movies, commercials, on glossy magazines’ covers and in TV series. Not necessarily as the “poor sods” or the “heroes”. Nor as the “good guys” by definition. We can’t take for granted that a disabled person is good, generous, helpful with everyone or, in one word, better than a non-disabled one. Disabled people, just like anyone else, can also be “asshole”, bad, vindictive, selfish and more.

Simply because the disabled people are (precisely) people, with qualities and lacks, as everyone else. People who live a particular condition, for sure. But people, not better or lesser beings.