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May 25, 2016
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Czech President Zeman wants disabled children educated separately, experts sharply criticize him

Prague, 16.1.2015 15:56, (ROMEA)
Czech President Miloš Zeman (PHOTO:  David Sedlecký, Wikimedia Commons)
Czech President Miloš Zeman (PHOTO: David Sedlecký, Wikimedia Commons)

The Czech Education Ministry is in favor of the broad inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream education whenever possible. Czech Education Minister Marcel Chládek (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) made that statement to the press yesterday.

Yesterday Czech President Miloš Zeman criticized such so-called inclusion. Chládek said he did not want to pass judgment on the President's words because he did not know the context in which they were spoken.

Today Anna Šabatová, the Public Defender of Rights (the ombud), criticized Zeman's opinion, calling it regrettable and unacceptable. The Education Minister said he believes that if a school is prepared and has all the necessary equipment and staff, it is always better for a child to be part of mainstream education.

Chládek also said he believes the "practical" (previously called "special") schools and other special education facilities must be preserved for difficult cases. "However, that does not mean that a child in a wheelchair should have to go to a school only for children in wheelchairs," the minister said.

The Education Minister made similar remarks regarding children of other nationalities or those following various religions. The creation of classes just for them would, in his view, be a great danger because it would make it difficult for such children to communicate with the rest of society.

Zeman made his remarks about inclusion on Wednesday 14 January when visiting a Rehabilitation Institute in Brandýs nad Orlicí. "I am not an advocate of the opinion that children who are handicapped in a certain way should be placed into classrooms with non-handicapped pupils, because that is unfortunate for both... This is not racism, nor is it a preference for an ethnic group, but children are far happier when they are in a community of their equals... From the point of view of their well-being, it is far better that the practical classes exist... I do not like [inclusion] at all,.. I am against it," news server reported the President as saying.    

The President's opinion is, according to Šabatová, not just regrettable and unacceptable, but contravenes the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which declares a child's right to an inclusive education. She also said that the countries that have practiced inclusive education for a longer time by including various minorities into mainstream schools are also those that usually achieve the best educational outcomes.

"It is enriching for the children, it is humane, children should grow up together, schools should do their best to integrate all children, if possible, by using various aids, assistants and support measures," the ombud said. For his part, Chládek said he wants to discuss the topic with the President and that Zeman's remark had surprised him, because it is a change from the President's previous statements.

Czech PM, experts criticize Zeman's remarks about the disabled

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD) has also emphasized the importance of integrating as many children as possible into mainstream education. The President's remarks were sharply criticized by experts on inclusive education, organizations working with persons with physical disabilities, other politicians and special education teachers.

Sobotka said a modern state should do its best to include disabled people in the life of society, and not just in the schools. "Children should grow up together as much as possible, it is an important social experience for them, it teaches them to help their peers and understand that it is normal for people to be different for medical reasons and for society overall to be diverse," he said.

Klára Laurenčíková, the chair of the Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education (ČOSIV) told the Czech News Agency that research has shown that educating different kinds of children together shapes their attitudes toward ones that are based on cooperation, respect and tolerance. She said she believes the head of state should not have made any such remarks.  

"He is returning us to the era of deep totalitarianism, when children with handicaps were excluded not just from regular schools, but very often from ordinary society as well because they were shut up in institutions," she noted. The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), who are part of the coalition government, also expressed disagreement with Zeman's views.

"Each person is of equal value. Discrimination on the basis of the state of someone's health is forbidden by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. Educating everyone together helps the development of the handicapped and enriches the lives of healthy children," said KDU-ČSL chair Pavel Bělobrádek.

The National Council of Persons with Disabilities warned that segregation in education would lead to the creation of ghettos of persons with disabilities. "The President of the Republic should explain his words and the National Council of Persons with Disabilities of the Czech Republic would welcome a joint meeting with Mr President so we can clarify to him what the integration of persons with disabilities means, that it is not just about education, but also about other areas of life," reads the declaration of the Council, which is chaired by Václav Krása.

The Association of Special Educators of the Czech Republic sharply objected to the President's remarks. In their view Zeman's "generalizing formulations" were at the level of educational concepts prior to 1989.

"Mr President is evidently not at all informed about the democratization of our schools or about current trends in the assignment of children with disabilities into the schools, which involves quite a few pitfalls and problems," said the Association's chair Jiří Pilař. He said the aim should be to educate only those children for whom a separate education was truly essential in the special schools.

The Association of Special Educators also pointed out that teachers are insufficiently prepared for inclusive education and sometimes are not very interested in expanding their knowledge of the field. Božena Jirků, director of the Konta Bariéry NGO, said the integration of disabled children into schools with non-disabled children had been one of her project's priorities from the very beginning.    

In her view, the head of state is calling for the country to turn back 30 years. "We won't do it, you won't slow us down. On the contrary, we will become more and more active in our own society, we will do more and more to convince it that clever children who just have wheelchairs instead of legs ... belong among us," Jirků said.

Former Czech Education Minister Petr Fiala, the chair of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), said he considers Zeman's remarks to have been incomprehensible and unfortunate. He noted that all children who have the capacity to attend mainstream education are not yet integrated into it.  

Fiala said a basic problem is how schools are financed, when, for example, money for teaching assistants is only allocated on an annual basis. In his view there is a need for money to be distributed with more of a long-term perspective.

Slovaks find Zeman's remarks about the disabled deplorable

The online news server Denník N, which has been established in Slovakia by former editors from the Sme daily newspaper, said that President Zeman's remarks on the inappropriateness of educating disabled and non-disabled children together was even more deplorable than his vulgar cursing on a radio program last year and his drunkenly tottering about when the crown jewels were on display. Denník N compared Zeman to the Governor of the Banská Bystrica Region and leader of Slovak extremists, Marian Kotleba, who last year refused to support a project to improve the standard of living for the disabled.

"Through his words, Zeman has dragged the Czech Republic to the bottom of the barrel, but the country does not deserve to be judged only by this cad of an insensitive President. Over the past few decades our neighbors have created many brilliant projects for the handicapped. While we may have a more empathetic President who understands issues of disadvantage here in Slovakia, the process of integrating the handicapped here has been comparatively materially delayed," the news server opined.  

Denník N also reminded its readers of last year's decision by the ultra-right Kotleba, who refused to sign a contract for a project financed from European funds to aid people with disabilities in their integration into society by creating apartment buildings and houses for them in ordinary neighborhoods, as well as by assisting their employment. The project would have meant that such people would no longer have had to reside in an institution housed in a local chateau.

Kotleba, who has long opposed the European Union and restricted the use of EU funds in general in his region, claimed he would have broken the law if he had signed the project contracts. "Czech President Miloš Zeman has sunken to the level of Kotleba, who would prefer to see people with disabilities isolated," Denník N commented.

"The message of the language and the symbols used by a head of state are very important to the atmosphere of a society. Zeman is 70 years old, he is never going to acquire the ability to feel empathy for others, to say nothing of tact. The Czech Republic now desperately needs to find a person to convince the President not to answer every question he is asked and to stay quiet from time to time," the news server concluded.

Czech President Zeman's full remarks about the inclusion of disabled children

"I am not an advocate of the opinion that children who are handicapped in a certain way should be place into classrooms with non-handicapped pupils because that is unfortunate for both. I repeat - unfortuante for both. Right? Naturally I could analyze this for you, I could talk about bullying, I could talk about the fact that a train is only as fast as its slowest car, so teachers would not be able to devote themselves to, let's say, the more talented children, and I personally believe this is not racism, not a preference for any ethnic group, but that children are far happier when they are in a community of their equals than when they are placed into [a different] community...

You know, children's cruelty is some of the most horrible, children's cruelty, called bullying, may even be worse than that of adults. Well, when these children are integrated, so-called, when that inclusion occurs, then they are naturally victims of a certain amount of bullying, of contempt, etc., etc.

So I really just love all that multiculturalism. I believe it was invented by crazy intellectuals in a café in Prague who have never been to a school today, or if they have, they spent maybe half an hour in one. Well, whatever they saw there was just a Potemkin village. In other words, I am against inclusion. I know the multiculturalists will attack me and say I am a racist, or I don't know what else, but it's not that at all.  From the point of view of their well-being it is far better that the practical classes exist - they call it a practical class because that is less pejorative than the previous name they were known under, so if you want to know my opinion, I don't like it at all and I am against it."

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