People with disabilities need professional-level skills in using their assistive technologies

Long ago, when I started working on disability issues, there was great debate on whether children with disabilities should attend specialized or mainstream schools. At that time, only a minimal minority of children with physical disabilities had the opportunity of mainstream education, on the initiative and under responsibility of single schools or teachers or families; the other children had to go to specialized schools where available (often moving to college very young, in case their family lived far away) or stay illiterate.

It was 1977 when my country, Italy, decided to break the mould. The change was quite traumatic for the school system: suddenly, specialized schools were closed down; all children, including those with sensory and intellectual disabilities, soon started attending mainstream school. For my country it was a difficult period; it took time before achieving a stable situation, and here and there we still observe some difficulties. Other countries undertook more gradual and pragmatic approaches, some of them achieving full inclusive education quite later, some other still having today a certain amount of specialized schools.

However, today we clearly see the benefit of that decision. For sure the social perception of disability is different in a generation where people with and without disability have grown up side-by-side, in comparison with what would have happened if these people had followed separate educational paths, which might have also meant separate work and life in the long run. The mutual educational benefit is also evident, for both non-disabled people (whose educational experience was enriched by familiarity with disability) and disabled people (who had the same educational opportunities as their peers).

We might go on with a dissertation on pros and cons of inclusive education, however I don’t want to take your time on this issues: there are other websites which are more qualified for this. Let’s go straight to the point I wish to highlight: the new barriers to inclusive education that may arise within the school system due to the digital divide. With no doubts ICT offers enormous opportunities in supporting inclusive education processes. However, while today we expect that all schools be prepared to teach the most common digital skills to their students, I wonder: are they also prepared to teach to their disabled students to fully master the assistive technology needed to use ICT equipment, in case they need any ? In my personal experience, the answer if often “no”. I know children with blindness who need screen readers, or children with severe motor disabilities who need alternative input and navigation tools, who come to primary school without any knowledge and experience of such assistive technologies. They often meet teachers who are even less knowledgeable about that, and a school organization which is not prepared to fill this gap. Someone argues that this is responsibility of rehabilitation services; this maybe sometime true, however, the problem is not solved by bouncing responsibilities from each other.

The fact is that persons with disabilities must fully master their personal assistive technologies in order to participate in education on the same foot as their mates; they need professional-level and not just amateur-level skills in the use of these technologies. Who is teaching them these skills? Let’s learn from good practices, there are many throughout Europe, and take this challenge seriously!

 By Renzo Andrich, Entelis Partner AAATE