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On World Autism Awareness Day, ‘Everything is Possible’

A Call for Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities in European Schools

Children in the playground of a European School in Brussels.  © 2015 Lieven Van Assche / ID / photo agency
Most of us who grew up in Europe have always taken our right to education for granted – but not children with autism.

On a Wednesday afternoon in October, I met Adrian, a 17-year-old boy with autism, at the European institution where his mother works. He was waiting for me in the cafeteria, oblivious to the noise and agitation, while my heart was pounding at the sight of the many senior European Union officials having lunch all around us.

When he was 10, Adrian joined one of the European Schools, top-level establishments for children of EU staff, where most parents would dream of enrolling their children. But Adrian’s experience wasn’t so positive. Every benign incident related to his disability was magnified by school officials into a serious behavioral issue. Eventually, he was excluded from a required class and had to leave the school.

His mother told me that Adrian rarely expresses emotions, so I was not very hopeful when I asked: “How did this make you feel”? He paused, and answered: “I did not enjoy this. This was not a happy time”.

Adrian was later admitted to another European School where he found the support he needed. But throughout interviews with students at European Schools and their parents, I saw that his experience is common amongst children with disabilities, who are too often forced to leave school when they are denied basic adjustments.

On the December morning when Human Rights Watch released a report on children with disabilities in European Schools, I received an email from Adrian’s mother thanking me and inviting me to contact her when Adrian graduated, “To prove,” she said, “that the director of the school was wrong and to show that everything is possible, if there is a will.”

Since then, European Commissioner for Budget & Human Resources Günther Oettinger, and Secretary-General of European Schools Giancarlo Marcheggiano told Human Rights Watch they are committed to addressing the situation. The European Ombudsman has launched a new strategic initiative on European Schools, and an action plan for students with disabilities will be presented to the European Schools’ Board of Governors next week.

Adrian was fortunate to find inclusion at school and is doing well there. His mother was right. When children with autism are empowered to learn and thrive alongside their peers, everything is possible.

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