1 December 2011
Theresia Degener was born into this world without arms, she has learned to do everything with her feet. Needless to say, in carrying out her daily routine, she sometimes draws people’s attention.
Disabled children sit around a table with toys
© EPA PHOTO/JON HRUSA
“I have a visible and exotic disability. It makes me look different and that’s a plus,” she says, revealing her sense of humour.
Degener is an energetic person whose condition led her to become an advocate for the rights of the disabled.
A Professor of Law and Disability Studies in Germany, she is also a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The Committee monitors the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008 and commits States to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.
Degener contributed to the preparation of the background material used in the drafting of the Convention and was part of the negotiation process leading to its adoption.
She recounts her experience growing up, the youngest of six children, in a small village in Germany.
“My father was the doctor of the village,” she says. “When it was time for me to go to school, the authorities informed him that, according to the laws, I had to go to a special school.”
‘Take me to prison,’ her father told the authorities, ‘but my daughter will go to regular school.’ “He even threatened not to treat the Mayor’s children when they got sick if the authorities did not reconsider!” Degener said, smiling.
Degener was admitted to regular school. “I have always attended regular schools,” she says. “If it were not for my parents and the opportunity I had to go to a regular school, I would not have become a lawyer.”
Inspired by her personal experience, she focuses today on the rights of disabled children to obtain a proper and inclusive education.
Inclusive education is based on the principle that all children learn together, wherever possible, regardless of difference, states a UN report on the right to education of persons with disabilities.
By taking into account the diversity among learners, inclusive education seeks to combat discriminatory attitude and create welcoming communities. In this way, says the report, educational systems should no longer view persons with disabilities as problems to be fixed; instead, they should respond positively to pupil diversity and approach individual differences as opportunities to enrich learning for all.
Special schools are often based on the belief that persons with disabilities are uneducable or are a burden on the mainstream educational system. The practice of separating students with disabilities can lead to greater marginalization from society, a situation that persons with disability face generally, thus entrenching discrimination.
“Special education is less qualified than mainstream education,” says Degener. “Exclusion from the education system is a serious violation of human rights.”
Ultimately, inclusive education can lead to better learning outcomes for all children, not just children with disabilities, according to UNICEF. It promotes tolerance and enables social cohesion as it fosters inclusive social culture and promotes equal participation in society.