The COVID-19 pandemic has hugely affected access to inclusive education for children with disabilities; therefore increasing existing inequalities. On the 10th March 2021, the European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) organised a webinar to take stock of the situation of education of children with disabilities one year on from the pandemic. The end-message was clear: COVID-19 further demonstrated the need for inclusive education measures for children with disabilities to reduce existing and growing inequalities in access over the past year.
For the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new reality for European societies, in all their aspects, including education. One year ago, many governments closed schools, and students had to continue their education from home. The alternation of education in presence and long-distance through digital learning platforms and tools have become the new reality for students and teachers. EASPD webinar gathered education providers, family organisations and other stakeholders to present and discuss the state of play for the access to education, challenges for children with disabilities and their families and the role for support service in this mutable context.
If the pandemic impacted education for all students, it had harmful consequences on the access of students with disabilities to education, and to mainstream education. Furthermore, the quality of education, and the availability and quality of support to children with disabilities and families were undermined.
In Belgium, for example, many students with high support needs were moved from mainstream to special education. Also, due to safety measures, staff had to limit the number of schools they provided support to. In Finland, pupils could not get special support, reducing the quantity and quality of teaching. The re-opening of schools did not mean the end of difficulties as sanitary measures can constitute barriers for children with special needs. This situation had a heavy impact on the families, where parents had to support their children full time, and in school activities, including in using digital equipment, sometimes in the absence of respite services.
Long-distance or digital education has highlighted that supporting young children with disabilities must pass through the support and empowerment of their families. Service providers are key partners in supporting families and facilitating access to education. It is crucial that authorities work to ensure service providers can facilitate inclusion by providing funding, equipment, and facilitating access to digital resources, as well as their capacity to adapt to these new challenges.
The existing inequalities were intensified, especially for students with disabilities, with differences in the access and quality of education depending from geographical areas, schools, teachers, and families of origin. In this context, more than ever, the EU and national policies must prioritise access to inclusive education and invest in the accessibility of mainstream school settings, digital education tools and platforms, training of teachers, and in the availability of quality and person-centred support. The newly released Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030 is an important starting point and calls for enhanced cooperation for national reforms for inclusive education, and synergies between policy and funding areas.
Inclusion must start from the early stages in life, thus from quality inclusive early childhood education and care (ECEC). The new European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan proposes the revision of Barcelona targets for 2030 including an increase of the provision of ECEC. This should go hand in hand with the upcoming toolkit for inclusion in early childhood education and care and a set of disaggregated indicators to monitor the inclusion of children with disabilities.
There is more to come at European level, with the upcoming Child Guarantee that must boost this effort and respond to the specific needs of children with disabilities by promoting access to quality ECEC and education, training of staff on inclusion of children with disabilities, the use of technology, and the adequate funding of services.
“Education is the very first element to make inclusion real for children and adults with disabilities, and this must happen in mainstream settings, paired with quality support to children and families. We will strive to ensure that this crisis generates a strong response to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from education” concluded Irene Bertana, Senior Policy Officer at EASPD.
EASPD members will gather to discuss strategies, solutions and good practices during the conference “To Inclusive Education and BEYOND” that will take place on 5, 6, and 7 May.
- EASPD Salzburg Declaration “Towards more inclusive learning environments in Europe”
- EASPD Statement on Early Childhood Intervention
- The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan
- Union of Equality: Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030
- Strengthening the quality of early childhood education and care through inclusion
- Inclusive Education: Lessons Learnt from COVID-19- Barbara Janta PowerPoint
- Inclusive Education in COVID-19- Annemie Jennes PowerPoint
- Camille Roux Intervention, COFACE Families Europe
- S.H.I.F.T. – A guide to shift towards meaningful inclusion of persons with disabilities and their families
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Note to editors
The European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities is a non-profit European umbrella organization, established in 1996, and currently representing over 17,000 social and health services for persons with disabilities. EASPD advocates effective and high-quality disability-related services in the field of education, employment and individualised support, in line with the UN CRPD principles, which could bring benefits not only to persons with disabilities, but to society as a whole.