International Perspectives on Inclusion and Labels for Children with Disabilities

This post has been contributed by Natalie. What is the media saying about children with special needs? Please read her summary and respond to the questions to contribute to discussion. Thank you and enjoy!

Children with Special Rights in Reggio Emilia, Italy

For the past seven years, I have been teaching in schools in Massachusetts and California that take great inspiration from the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools of Reggio-Emilia. As part of my graduate work at Tufts, I have worked as an assistant to Lella Gandini, US Liaison for the Reggio Emilia Approach to education.  While my specific research has focused on children and teachers as researchers and the Reggio Emilia Approach in public schools in the United States, I have also studied a great deal about inclusion in this small Italian city.

For this post, I have uploaded an article titled “The Inclusive Community” by Ivana Soncini, taken from the book, The Hundred Languages of Children by Lella Gandini, Carolyn Edwards, and George Forman.  In this article, Soncini describes her work as a Pedagogical Coordinator responsible for the inclusion of children with special rights in the municipal schools of Reggio Emilia.

According to Italian National Law (1977) children with disabilities are entitled to an inclusive education.  And, since then, the system has “eliminated the deficit model and has placed the primary focus on changing the nature of the educational environment to serve all children” (p.189).

Soncini writes:

“I believe that children with disabilities have the right to live in a school that allows them to intersubjectively construct a positive representation of self—a representation that is in continuous evolution… We have learned from the children with special rights…that emotion and cognition are tightly connected.  We have also learned, as I have described, to pay attention to other languages beyond the verbal…The children have motivated us…to analyze our own interpretation of the idea of change.  How do we interpret change?  Traditionally, change has been perceived as movement toward normality.  Historically, the goal was to bring a child with special rights as close to a state of normality as possible.  This idea of change focuses on the deficits of the child” (p.205)

Questions for Discussion:

1.  What are the political and educational implications of using “children with special rights” rather than “children with special needs”?
2.  According to Soncini’s articles, how would you describe the image of the “child with special rights” in Reggio Emilia?
3.  How does this image influence the way teachers support children with special rights?
4.  Does this article raise any questions in your own work with children?

9 thoughts on “International Perspectives on Inclusion and Labels for Children with Disabilities

  1. Wow, interesting that they use “special rights” instead of “special needs.” As we have discussed in class, there is often a stigma associated with various types of “special needs” or “disabilities.” These terms fail to express a difference and rather seem to express something negative. I think using “special rights” goes along with inclusion, in that the term encourages the idea that intervention for disabilities is possible and people can still achieve and be successful.

  2. I think that using the terminology “children with special rights” as opposed to “special needs” makes the child with a disability seem not like a burden to society or their school community because of their disability. Though it seems like a small shift in wording, I think this could impact the policies and programs for children with disabilities are created and viewed. “Children with special needs” could imply that a child is needy. Rather, “children with special rights” are affirmed as a unique individual who brings something to the community. The terminology still supports the child’s rights to accommodations, while also supporting every child’s right to be seen as a unique individual and to participate fully in their community.

  3. I absolutely think that the negative stigma associated with the term “special needs” turns society against children, which in the end is detrimental to through growth and development. Having people turn against you, rather then to help you, because of the association a word gives you is outrageous. I truly enjoy seeing places around the world, take this negative connotation and turning it into something positive and beneficial. “Special rights” encourages the individual with the disability, and the people involved in their lives such as friends, families, and teachers. It allows the child to see him/herself in a positive way, encouraging them to succeed rather then seeing themselves the way society does. This along with inclusion a great intervention to help this group of children succeed to their best abilities.

  4. I found comfort in reading this article that uses the term children with “special rights” instead of “special needs,” especially after reading the preceding media piece where the Northern Ghana society categorizes their children born with deformities as “spirit children.” These two categorizations are in a way on opposite sides of a spectrum, in their contrasting views of disabled children. I think that it would be incredibly beneficial for the people of Ghana to read Soncini’s article about disabled children, in order to modify their ideas of what they call “spirit children” to start calling them “children with special rights.” Once this is achieved, I highly doubt that they will still consider death as the fate of their disabled children as the best solution.

  5. In response to your first question, the use of “special rights” could revolutionize the way people perceive disabilities. Since language shapes our understanding of the world, “special rights” implies that children deserve respect and affirmation. I like this term and its potential for changing attitudes. In the classroom, “special rights” could also shape how teachers approach disabilities. As Soncini describes, the educational system should help children construct a positive sense of self: “I believe that children with disabilities have the right to live in a school that allows them to intersubjectively construct a positive representation of self—a representation that is in continuous evolution.” Teachers who recognize that children with special rights have evolving self representations, separate from their diagnoses or perceived limitations, will create more inclusive classrooms.

  6. Thanks for sharing this article! I think it’s a really cool approach to this subject because the words that we choose are so important and we don’t even realize how much they influence. I like the phrase “special rights” but I wonder if it would ever catch on and be popularly used in the United States.
    Regardless, what is great about this approach is that they value the special needs children (which is the exact opposite of what we saw in the article about Northern Ghana, and probably most other developing nations). There have been a number of psych studies (we even talked about some in class) that show that teachers’ innate perception of their students, and their students’ capabilities, has a direct correlation with these students’ progress. (Of course there are exceptions to this). Generally, if a teacher believes a student is smart or has potential, that student is more likely to succeed. So, by changing the wording from “special needs” to “special rights,” this can influence the teachers’ subconscious perception of their students and increase their likelihood of succeeding.
    Another thing I like about this approach is that it takes into account the students’ emotional states. It acknowledges that emotions are important, just as cognitive abilities are. In doing so, this approach moves away from the stigma attached to special needs. I think that it would be a very insightful and valuable approach to implement!

    • I really like the point that Jenna made about the influence that the terms have on people, whether it is conscious or not. I think it is really easy to associate the term special needs with a disability. If you asked most people (not involved in education or studying development) what “special needs” means, they would probably equate it to a polite way to say disability. I think there is much more room in using a term like ‘special rights’ to understand the needs of these children without looking at these children as having a deficit. ‘Special rights’ also says a lot about how these individuals are valued in society. Even though I think most people in our society agree with the idea of inclusion and the IDEA act, we as a society still view these children as separate, but equal, which doesn’t seem to be the case in the article.

  7. I know there are pockets of people and institutions in the United States that use the terms children with special right and learning differences instead of the terms children with special needs and learning disabilities. Being able to say that you or your student is merely different or has special rights instead of saying that they are disabled or has special needs can change the way you view yourself or the way you view your student. Labeling someone as disabled emphasizes what they cannot do and labeling some as having needs does not emphasize what they offer. Within communities that have chosen other words I think there is generally much more acceptance, more of a positive attitude and more ownership of variation between people. It is unfortunately still true that when someone who identifies as being different or having special rights goes to do one of the many pieces of paperwork they have to do throughout life, the document still reads disability and special needs. This is true of most official interactions and it can make it harder to stay positive and remain a good advocate. Which terms do federal documents in Italy use?
    I think it also shows a lot that the article mentions things that have been learned from those with differences. It is so rare that people bring up what those with differences can add to society. I loved the question of should development be measured as normality. I do not think it should, but then one has to figure out what should constitute development and whether or not development can even be generalized to fit more than one individual.

  8. The term “special rights” is really interesting to me. I think it makes the caring for the special characteristics of the child sound like more of a *mandate*, more of a non-negotiable item; special “needs” might go unmet, but infringing on someone’s “rights” is illegal.

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