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Examine the links between human rights and different models of disability in education


“No person shall be denied the right to education”

(European Convention 1950, First protocol Article 2)

“Discrimination against any person on the basis of disability is a violation of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person”

“States parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education” (Article 26)

(Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006)

Education must be for all, without exceptions.The last years, the issue of disability and the different ways in which different communities try to approach it, have started to interest science and especially social sciences.Eventually, four models of disability were created and each one of them has an effect on both the public opinion and the legislation.

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Thus, human rights in education and special education were affected, when they were formed, by one or more models of disability. In this essay, I will try to show the way in which human rights are linked to the models of disability. Firstly, I will examine and analyze each one of the models and their origins, and parallel to this, there will be a brief comparison between some issues of some specific models. Secondly, I will analyze and connect the terms of citizenship and inclusive education. Thirdly, I will discuss disability and special education. And finally, in the first part I will discuss the Salamanca statement and framework for action on special needs education and with which model of disability it is connected. In the second part I will refer to how things are in Greece as far as special education is concerned, according to the ministry of education and based on my personal experience.

What is Disability?

According to the WHO (World Health Organization)which has been used as the basis for two national studies of disability in Britain (Harris, 1971; Martin, Meltzer and Eliot, 1988), the definition of impairment is: in the context of health experience, an impairment is any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function. Moreover, the definition of disability is: in the context of health experience, disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range which is considered normal for a human being. On the other hand, the definition that DPI (Disabled People’s International) gives for impairment is: impairment is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment. And the definition for disability is: the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers (DPI, 1982).

In today’s world, that we are living, disability has begun to be considered as something universal, a global experience. Through disability, we study especially the values and the position of the people towards disability, and as a consequence, we study how each society treats its members, including disabled people.

The interest for disabilities is a combination of the academic interest, in explaining what disability truly is and its effects on all the fields of society, of the activists and the universal character that disability takes (Chard et al. 1999; Blendon and Benson, 2001)

Disability is a usual term, but practically it refers to people with some kind of bodily or mental-intellectual incapacity and because of that they cannot participate in sundry activities. There are people who claim that this inability of disabled people to participate is a consequence of the barriers which are raised by the majority of “normal” people. It is a socially constructed attitude towards people with impairments. However, disability is not just attitudes which result in discrimination, but also institutionalized practices. What is considered to be “normal” for abled-bodied is not for disabled one, such as the capacity to walk up and down stairs or to cross the road.

Disability does not only concern the person itself who is disabled but it affects the whole world too, and it also has economic, cultural and political ramifications to each society. With the interference of disabled activists and organizations, in the 60’s a lot of national governments included policies in legislation through which the rights of disabled people are protected and secured. A big change was made back in 1981 by the United Nations where the responsibility of the government to provide equal rights to people with any kind of disability was recognized. In 1980 the majority of the academics were interested almost entirely in the medical explanation of disability (Barnes, Oliver, Barton, 2002). A very obvious example was Talcott Parsons (1951) who applied sociological methods and concepts to the understanding of health and illness, and medicine in general, in their social context.

Medical model

The medical model of disability focuses on the groups that are formed, the disabled and the non-disabled. Someone’s disability is his personal problem that requires a medical solution and there are not any problems or any barriers which are caused by society. The focus is not on the integration of the disabled person, but on the disability of the person and either the cure (if there is one), or a specific assistance to overcome the effects of that impairment (Indiana Law Journal, vol 83).

For Parsons every form of sickness diverges from the norm. In the upcoming decades, there was a major concentration on ‘mental illness’ through the sociological perspective (Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol 17). Additionally, Foucault (1975, 1979) argued that mental illness and all the forms of acts that diverge are something more than the social constructs made by the dominant group.

All studies relevant to mental illness refer to economic or social problems and their consequences but neither of them really look into the meaning of what is called “individual” or “medical” as a form of disability. No one extended the theories from mental illness to any other physical disability or other impairments, and as a consequence, disabled people were socially and economically deprived (Segall, A. 1976)

Charity model

The second model of disability is the “charity model”. In this model we examine the voluntary agencies. There are organizations that have been shaped for people who are disabled and they are run by “normal” people and these organizations are completely different from the organizations of disabled people (which are run by the disabled people) (Barton, 1996).

The tradition of charities is very old and particularly for Britain it goes back into the Industrial Revolution. These charities had a wide range of occupations and they were present in a lot of social activities such as religion, entertainment, education and many more. Our concern focuses there, where the charities assumed the role of social welfare; when they had transformed their interests according to the different forms of diseases. As far as Britain is concerned, disabled people started to be gradually excluded from work, when the time of industrialization and the machinery came. This happened because the work was made for able-bodied people and as a result of this, disabled people were condemned to depend on others to make a living (Finkelstein, 1981b).

At first, church and poorhouses where those who were helping disabled people to live and after a while the organized charity was added as well. But progressively, as the state took the role of the social welfare, disabled people began to have some economic benefits from the social system and additionally we have the creation of some centers where they could stay, such as day centers (Barnes, 1990; Brenton, 1985; Handy, 1988).

The flourish of charities was in the twentieth century. There were many people who were occupied there, some of them were volunteers and some others were salaried staff of professionals (Brandon, 1988). In fact, even though some agencies occupied volunteers and called themselves as voluntary, they were not, actually they were non-governmental and they did not have any profit from the charity and their only aim was to help (Drake, 1994). Most of the charities endorsed the medical model and they emphasized on the treatment of the individual (example: the cure) or they intervened in some other ways, for example, since they knew that the use of public transportation was too difficult for the disabled people, they provided minibuses to those who needed it. But the most fascinating thing was that the disabled people did not prefer this means of transportation because of the fact that they were only for disabled andthis was exactly the ‘problem’. It was something that made a distinction between the able-bodied and the disabled. Here lies the difference between the organizations which are run by the disabled people; their focus was on campaigns and proposals for redesigning the form of public vehicles. The society of the disabled criticized the traditional charities mostly because of their philosophy, which did not unite them with the majority but separated them (Barton, 1996).

Administrative model

The third model of disability is the administrative model. Finkelstein, one of the founders of the social model, criticizes the explanatory ability of the social model as far as the position of disabled people in modern societies is concerned. He argues (1993) that the administrative model of disability is the only model which combines all the forms that a helping service can take, even if they come from the state or from voluntaries. “The cure and the care forms of intervention are administered within the rehabilitation and personal-care services respectively” (Finkelstein, 1993:37). The administrative model is some kind of dichotomous and it has some impact on the legislation. This model refers to specific fields such as education. An aspect of this model is that if someone ‘deserves’, depending on one’s impairment, to be called disabled he has, as a result of this, access to some benefits. It is a sad fact that disabled people have to pass specific tests in order to “prove” their impairment. In fact, there have been some cases of people with severe disabilities who although they deserved the benefits, they were deprived of them, for the reason that they did not fit into the “boxes” which are provided by the administrative model. So, sometimes it seems to be unfair towards a specific group of disabled people, if they do not fulfill the conditions which are set legally (French, 1994).

Social model

The fourth and last model is the social. Back to the nineteenth century we have the rising of activist organizations motivated by people with disabilities. There have been many protests in many countries such as the U.S. and Canada, for the discrimination that they have encountered. But the case of Britain was something special and important, because a new and more radical approach was embedded to theories, so now they refer to, as “the social model of disability”.

The organizations run by disabled people (for example the Upias) made the ground fertile for many disabled activists to rethink the whole idea around disability. By contrast, the social interpretation of disability argues that people with accredited or perceived impairments, regardless of the cause, are disabled by society’s failure to accommodate their needs. The social model concentrates on the social inability to incorporate the disabled with whichever disability that they might have. Because disability does not connote someone’s failure; this approach focuses on the various obstacles like social, economic or political created against impairment.

Disability studies were initially approached by medical sociology and some perspectives were raised. There has been a lot of research motivated by practical medical and other services of health concerns. For example, in Britain, despite the sociological aspects of the social model, it was a team from the Open University (1975), which developed the first studies for disability. This course was developed with the aid of a South African clinical psychologist named Vic Finkelstein and a lot of people from the U.K. who were either disabled or disadvantaged by the educational system, were attracted. Through this course, named “The Handicapped Person in the Community”, people focused on the improvement of their skills, so as to help in a better way the handicapped people to do their best help in a better way, as far as their autonomy is concerned.

The social model of disability offered the “big idea” (Hasler, 1993), to people who were disabled. But it took some time before it found acceptance from the universities of the UK, as far as sociology departments are concerned. By contrast, in the U.S. and Canada disability entered the universities in the ‘70s. And again we have a combination of activism and academy as well.

During the last years we have a more radical perspective, in which supporters were a small group of disabled scholars who were related to cultural or human studies, especially in Australasia and North America. As a consequence of that, there was a development of a more critical field of research focused on the link between socio-political position and the approach of the social model (Rioux and Bach, 1994; Davis, 1995; Linton, 1998; Albrecht et al., 2001). All of these premises created a common interest between research and academic studies and at the same time signified the rising of the interest in socio-political approach, where British writers first shed light on.

In 1970, in Britain, the term “disability” began to change from a purely medical point of view to a more sociological perspective, because people began to see disability as a form of social segregation and exclusion. There was an organization which followed this movement, the UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation), for which disability is seen as an obstacle that social organizations put to people with any kind of impairment, excluding them from some social activities. Thomas Carol argues that UPIAS statement is that disability comes into light when activities of disabled people are restricted by specific social structures. So disability, he claims, is not synonym to the restriction or the lack of activity as it is in the ICIDH argument. It is not that impairment does not go with limitations of activities, but this does not constitute disability (Thomas, 1999).

According to the disability movement which included the organizations that were run by disabled people argues that for disabled people, reconstruction of the society can be the cure for their disability problems. This movement dissociates itself from the mental model and it has to do with the social model (Cole, 2000)

By contrast to the social model, in biomedicine the focus is on the deviations of the bodies and minds from the social norms of each individual. This “medical model” relies on the fast growing genetic science, to eradicate the diseases. So, according to this model, disability is equated with impairment.

From the perspective of rehabilitation science, the focus shifts to a different area, it seems to be very important to help the disabled to adapt and adjust a more “normal” life. It’s a strong belief that a lot of difficulties are caused inevitably by the impairment. And this combination of belief, that on the one hand, exclusions and limitations in different forms of activities are caused by impairment and on the other hand the social barriers that are raised against disability, turns into ICIDH (International Classification of Impairments Disabilities and Handicaps). In 1970, we have the development of an organization the ICIDH, organized by Philip Wood, Elizabeth Bradley and Mike Bury. ICIDH, wanted to move further, so it tried to explain what disability is but not from a purely bio-medical perspective. For ICIDH, disability is any kind of deficiency or restriction of ability to do an activity in a specific way which is considered normal for a human being. So, ICIDH does not equate disability with impairment, there is a serious possibility that some social factors can influence some restrictions of activities (Bury, 1997, 2000).


An additional term that I would like to add because it is important to examine, is the term of citizenship. It is a definition which according to Barbalet (1988:1) defines who is and who is not a member of society. To be called citizen, it means the ability to participate in the decisions that frame his/her society. Additionally, it is the ability of someone to have access to work, travel, leisure, and generally, it is the political, civil and social rights of people (Marshall, 1950).So we must consider in what way we “see” and approach disabled people.

In my opinion, education is a fundamental human right. Education can set an individual free and give him/her power. However, there are a lot of people (adults and children) who are deprived of education, and one of the many reasons can be some particular special need that an individual may have.

Disability and special education

In the 19th[?1] century, we had schools in which elementary education was provided for all. The system, on which schools based their education, was not very helpful for disabled children, because it was based on memory tests and learning by heart. This was a very negative factor for children who lacked specific abilities. As a result, it began to be clear that the degree of difficulty was increased as much as the growing inability of the child was increased too (Cole, 2000). It was only after 1921 and after a lot of pressure that some categories of impairment were recognized as such (epilepsy, deafness, blindness, mental defectiveness and physical defectiveness). So, creating special schools or special classes within regular schools began to be considered and children who were labeled as disabled could go and be educated there. Gradually, more categories were added in the term of disablement. After 1950, a lot of special schools were created and children, who were labeled as ineducable, according to Mental Deficiency Act (1913), had the right to be educated in those schools (Cole, 2000). In my opinion, this was a very cruel way of discrimination against those children who were labeled as ineducable and it was something that followed them throughout their life.

After 1975, the idea of a more inclusive education entered the stage. Despite the economic cost, many regular schools were forced to accept disabled children in an effort to integrate them. But still, there are many problems in regular schools that make the life of disabled children difficult. As long as there are special schools, regular schools will not change their strategies dramatically so as to integrate children with impairment (Collin, 2000).

Salamanca Statement

There have been a lot of efforts to support inclusive education. One of these efforts is the “Salamanca statement and framework for action” (1994), which took place in Spain and it was organized by UNESCO and the Spanish government, in which 92 governments took part and they tried to find policies which promote inclusive education and prepare all the schools to embrace all the individuals no matter what impairment is and to support their right to learn. Special education must be included in the mainstream schools and not be considered as an isolated issue (Salamanca, 1994). “The challenge confronting the inclusive school is that of developing a child- centred pedagogy capable of successfully educating all children, including those who have serious disadvantages and disabilities” (Salamanca,1991:6). As we can assume after reading the Salamanca statement, the policies are based on the social model. Because after understanding the several social barriers which exist, there is an effort to bring those barriers down through some policies and cooperation from all (governments-schools-citizens). For example, in the statement it is referred that “ we believe and proclaim that: “… education systems should be designed and educational programs implemented to take into account the wide diversity of these characteristics and needs… those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs” (2004:viii). And “we call upon all governments and urge them to: give the highest policy and budgetary priority to improve their education systems to enable them to include all children regardless of individual differences or difficulties…encourage and facilitate the participation of parents, communities and organization of persons with disabilities in the planning and decision-making processes concerning provision for special educational needs…invest greater effort in early identification and intervention strategies, as well as in vocational aspects of inclusive education” (2004:ix). We can assume that the statement forces the states to do whatever it takes so as to integrate all the disabled people in the educational system. They seek to have regular schools but with inclusive orientation so as not to have discrimination between humans.

Inclusive education

Inclusive education is when all children no matter what kind of impairment they have, are able to go to their local schools to be educated, and, for local schools to be able and appropriately prepared to provide all the facilities that children may need. There has to be a transformation of the curriculum in that way, so all children can be educated in the same way, without some pupils having special benefits against others. It is also important, through collaborative learning or through specific reading books or images to aid children without disabilities to learn how to coexist and cooperate with disabled children. This is a process which is helpful and all the children can learn and benefit from it. The learning support in each classroom, it would be very effective. Generally, we have to create activities which promote the collaboration of all children, to give opportunity to all disabled children to present themselves and to build up their self-esteem. Additionally, parental consulting is promoted, because it is good for children to be encouraged by their parents to feel more independent. There are a lot of other school policies which are based on the social model of disability (CSIE, 1996, 2000).

About Greece

In Greece, the education is compulsory and provides primary and secondary education and there is post-compulsory secondary education. According to the reform of 1997, it consists of two types of schools: the unified upper secondary schools and the technical vocational educational schools. Together with the mainstream schools, we also have special schools of all the educational stages, which admit students with special educational needs, such as special school for deaf people or special school for blind people. A child can go to a mainstream school which has integration classes or can go to a special school, depending on the impairment that the child may have. The decision, on which school a child will go to, is made through special education advisers and the Center of Diagnostic Evaluation and support, so as to diagnose the educational special needs of the child. Then, they choose the most appropriate school unit that will contribute to the better integration of the child. The progress of the child is evaluated from time to time. From the division of Special Education and the proceedings report of 2004-2007 we can see that a great amount of integration classes were created in the mainstream schools at all levels of the educational system ( , in Greek 20/03/11). On the one hand, there are some special schools for example, for deaf or blind children and there is still no policy to include those children in the mainstream schools, so as not to create any kind of discrimination. But on the other hand, those schools specialize in some specific impairments, so they can focus only on those children with the specific disability. The right of education for all and inclusive education is a little bit contradictory in that case, because the mainstream schools in Greece, for example, cannot admit deaf children in the same class with children who can hear.

In Greece, there is an effort to include children with specific impairments, such as learning difficulties or mild forms of mental retardation, by educating the teachers to be able to deal with those children’s requirements. A very interesting thing is that, even though the curriculum is the same for all the children whichever the school is and focuses on the equality of learning, if someone does not speak the same language there will be a serious problem because he will not be able to keep up with the rest of the students. So, there are some predetermined qualifications for someone to be able to have the same education with the others. In some circumstances, such as the immigrant’s children, if they do not know the language at all, it will be very difficult for them to catch up with the rest of the students, and maybe those children will be excluded because they do not fit in this model of requirements. But even though, there are some multicultural schools ( on 25/03/11), which are very helpful for children who do not know the language very well. As far as special education is concerned, the special schools are based on the segregation of the children and their base is the medical model of disability, because they categorize children on the basis of their impairment, however, their disability does not make impossible for people to learn and be educated, so it is sort of coming into the social model.

All kinds of children, either the disabled or the immigrants, require a specific kind of education. At this time, Greece is not ready to include all the children in a mainstream school. It would be perfect if we could have a mainstream school which could admit all the children no matter their impairment or their lack, but this is a project which requires a lot of time. And after all, this is the direction that we should all be oriented to.

To sum up, in this essay we examined the four models of disability and how they consider impairment and disability. Each one of these has its own point of view as far as disability and treatment of disabled people are concerned. All of the models have those who support their theories and those who criticize them. And through this process we can examine the weaknesses of each one. Basically, the human rights, in the last years, are based on the social model of disability, because they declare that everyone has the right to be educated no matter what impairment they may have, and taking into consideration the several social barriers that exist in the societies, they try to resolve the problems and through some new policies on schools to integrate all the children. Additionally, about the different legislations that societies have, we can note that they may have been affected by more than one models of disability. For example, in Greece, disabled people still have some economic benefits from the welfare state (which is a characteristic of the charity model). Furthermore, the administrative model has some impacts on the legislation, because, for example entering a special school or attending integration classes, the child has to pass through some tests which are predetermined and if the child fits in the characteristics that the legislation has given about disability or special needs. Then the child can officially go to a special school or to integrate in a mainstream school and attend integration classes. Moreover, the social model has its effects on the legislations, because there is an effort to recreate schools by embedding several policies in a way to integrate all children, as human rights declare. As far as special schools and mainstream schools are concerned, in my view, it would be perfect if we had one school so well prepared that could accept any child, regardless of its impairment. This would be done in an effort to achieve inclusive education. Special schools are not necessarily negative, but I think that these schools must accept only some very severely disabled children, that may be dangerous for the rest of the pupils. Any less severe impairment, with the appropriate preparation from the side of schools, would be good to be included in mainstream schools.

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