Our country has provided a powerful example and enduring commitment in providing inclusion and integration in the education system for all, but this is still not fully understood internationally and even internally.
The history of our policy of inclusion and integration is made up of research, study and experimentation that other countries are now undergoing, pointing out that we, in Italy, embraced this approach more than 40 years ago.
Despite commitments by other Member States to promote inclusive education, disabled children or children with special educational needs are still placed in segregated institutions in most countries and those in mainstream educational settings often receive inadequate support. The EU calls on Member States to work harder to develop inclusive education systems and to remove the barriers faced by vulnerable groups when it comes to participation and success in education, training and employment.
The integration system in Italy is based on the possibility for disabled students to attend the public school in a common class, with a reduced number of students and the support of one specially trained teacher for each student. Disabled students, even those who are severely impaired, can follow their own educational path within the class, even if they are able to reach only the basic stages in the curriculum. Evaluation is based on the student’s Individual Educational Plan (PEI) that is linked to the common planning of the class and of the school: the collaboration of community services (of local institutions, of local medical centres to support the school and social integration) are fundamental to building this “Project for Life”.
The parents are involved in all the different stages of the integration process: from the first reports relating to the child’s disability, to the drafting of the PDF (functional dynamic outline) and of the Individual Educational Plan; they are also involved through the participation in the GLHs and GLHOs (operational teams of work at different levels), that are created in each school and class to enhance the collaboration among different partners, inside and outside the school. According to Italian legislation, this process can continue right up to the highest educational levels, including the university.
The number of disabled students attending Italian universities today is much larger than in the past. There are about 16,000 disabled students in different graduation courses. For this reason, every university has a “representative” that is a professor whose duty is to manage available resources so as to facilitate the studies of disabled students and according to “the right to education” of the Italian Constitution he must guarantee that the services of every disabled student have the basic requirements that are necessary to his/her university life.
The Italian model is based on a wide set of laws and on the flexibility of educational planning, on the interaction between school community and the wider social community, on the internal organization of the different phases of integration processes, on the role of teachers and on the professional training and development of “special” teachers, together with that of all the other professionals involved.
In Italy, the policy of ‘integration’ that has been implemented since the 1970s, is based on a culture of making all students welcome in the common context of a school and represents a particular phase, both politically and socially, of Italian history. It is based on a system of relations around the person with a disability and on the reciprocal enrichment that allows the other students to understand a different way of learning and living together. School integration allows the students to share a new understanding of diversity which is underpinned by the principle that by living together all students can acquire new ways of learning and new kinds of knowledge.
Working with diversity leads to the development of a different culture. The person with a disability can provide new knowledge for other students, increasing the quality of education in the school system. Students are made aware that diversity belongs to each of us, and cannot be used either as a reason for discrimination or to justify the reduction of rights and opportunities. It also means having respect for one’s own life and for the life of others.
We believe that this is a point of strength, especially when we talk about the integration of people with severe disabilities, because integration is not a one-way route. We have often tried to point out to colleagues from other countries that our attention is not focused only on the disabled student, but it is focused on all students.
Integration involves a system of relations that is created around the disabled person, to know his/her personality and human sense, to discover the most effective ways of providing intervention, and the means of communication so that we get to know the other person. It involves allowing the students to learn, and to access knowledge, in a different way. It is living together to reach this aim: “apprendere insieme apprendimenti” (learning together how to learn).
This opening of a dialogue based on observation and listening can allow us to point out and develop the uniqueness of the evolution of each one of us, with the possibility of explaining the competences of each person in a different way than that commonly accepted, in a process that offers possibilities for growing in ways which enhance the value given to differences between us.
We have, therefore, to acknowledge the role of the school not only in terms of the transmission of knowledge but as a means to develop a life style for each individual. The question that we put, to realize this, is the following: what are the forms of knowledge, how can we convey them and develop competences for personal development and for the development of the community we belong to?
In the 60s special schools for the disabled were created in Italy but in the early 1970s, a wave of protest against those special schools, defined as discriminating and segregating, invested all the provinces of our country.
The Ministry of Education, pointed out that steps should be taken to overcome what was being defined as “segregation”.
Let’s say that generally speaking special classes, which are still present in many European countries, are not meant to develop the knowledge of the students with difficulties, but rather to allow to remove from ordinary classes students who are deemed likely to disturb or slow down the work of the other students.
In the EU Leonardo Project we have been able to observe that it is easy to find a large number of men and women identified as having Down syndrome set in a normal social and working life in Italy; while other European countries have faced many difficulties trying to find some.
In the 1970s, the Italian Government decided to abolish special classes and to develop “integrazione scolastica” (school integration). During the same period, another decision was taken: that of closing some segregating institutions such as the asylums for the mentally and psychologically ill, in order to spread a culture of integration within the social life of the whole community.
A specialist approach was adopted in order to place the disabled students in a context of socialisation in an ordinary class, while maintaining an appropriate response to his/her particular needs with technically prepared personnel. Without confusing disability and disadvantage, or disability and cultural differences, it may be helpful to understand a methodological process based on cognitive strategies, and not on one single model.
Personalized curricula focusing on adaptive and cognitive strategies, with potentially beneficial outcomes for many difficulties (dysgraphia, dyslexia, and other impairments…) and for the identification of other problems and contexts that may contribute to, or be a cause of, learning difficulties.
Introducing an impaired child within a community calls for mutual adaptation and can provide mutual reinforcement of cognitive skills.The presence of a disabled schoolmate is a resource to build learning strategies. It is clear that it engages us in a challenge that is a coevolution targeted at learning experiences; and therefore with the need of finding strategies, mediators, resources and materials that should allow that disabled child to learn. This is observed and also understood, with the help of adults, by the schoolmates who accomplish the possibility of understanding that one’s accomplishment is also the accomplishment of others, not only in a vaguely sentimental sense but also with the concreteness of the objectives of learning.
Italy was awarded a special prize by the UN for inclusion of disabled minors in the school system.