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An Iranian student sits in a wheelchair in a classroom with fellow students. © May 2019 Fars News Agency

(New York) – Children with disabilities face discrimination and significant barriers in getting an education in Iran, Human Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights in Iran said in a joint report issued today as the school year begins.

The 52-page report “‘Just Like Other Kids’: Lack of Access to Inclusive Quality Education for Children with Disabilities in Iran” documents discrimination and barriers to education in the country’s public school system for most children with disabilities. A major obstacle is a mandatory government medical test that can exclude them from education altogether, the groups found. Additional barriers include inaccessible school buildings, discriminatory attitudes of school staff, and lack of adequate training for teachers and school administrators in inclusive education methods.

“Blocking children with disabilities from accessing education in an inclusive environment contributes to the social stigma millions of people with disabilities in Iran face daily,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).“Educating children with disabilities in the same environment as their peers improves learning for all children and benefits society as a whole.”

Human Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights in Iran interviewed 37 people in Iran, including children with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, activists, and government officials. This research follows a 2018 joint report by the groups that documented discrimination and lack of accessibility for people with disabilities in Iran, stigmatization of people with disabilities, abusive behavior by some state officials and employees, and barriers in getting transportation and health care.

Children with disabilities have the right to a quality inclusive education in which children with and without disabilities study together in mainstream schools with necessary support. Inclusive education is key to reducing stigma and promoting the rights of people with disabilities throughout their lives, the groups said.

Iran’s public school system subjects all children to a discriminatory medical assessment based on an IQ test to determine whether they are “educable.” Children with low scores are compelled to attend a segregated “special” school. Children with the lowest scores are denied education altogether. 

One parent described learning that her 7-year-old daughter, who is blind and has difficulty communicating, was deemed “uneducable” after her medical assessment: “The day they told me that they can’t register my daughter … was one of the worst days of my life.… I want her to go to school just as all other kids go. I had purchased all the school supplies for her, but she didn’t answer any questions in the assessment session, and the man there said that she is not educable. I brought her back home, crying all the way.”

Children with disabilities who do enroll in schools face various barriers. These include inaccessible buildings, classrooms, and toilets, or lack of aides and other support. The government should ensure reasonable accommodations so that children with disabilities have the support they need in the classroom and the building. These can include assistive devices such as hearing aids or educational materials in formats such as braille or audio.

The lack of such support can put a heavy burden on families. Some parents said that they had to accompany their child to school to carry them up and down stairs or to give them the assistance they need with writing or reading. 

Inaccessibility and lack of reasonable accommodations in schools can also compel children with disabilities to drop out of school or to enroll in a school far from home, or even in a residential “special” school where they are separated from their family and community.

Based on government figures, during the 2018-2019 school year only 150,000 children with disabilities of school age were enrolled in school, and more than half of them in “special” schools that segregate them from other students. Estimates put the total number of school-age children with disabilities in Iran at 1.5 million.

In recent years, the Iranian government has adopted some measures to improve access to education for children with disabilities, including significantly increasing the budget for their education and establishing physical accessibility requirements for newly built or renovated schools. It has also expanded some support to children with disabilities attending mainstream schools by offering accessible education materials, including materials in braille or audio formats. 

But in the absence of a comprehensive approach to guarantee inclusive education throughout the school system, these measures are insufficient to ensure that children with disabilities can access education on an equal basis with other children. Iran has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantee the right to quality education for all children without discrimination. The CRPD also requires governments to provide reasonable accommodations and accessibility to support quality education.

“The Iranian government’s approach to education of children with disabilities risks keeping many children with disabilities in Iran on the margins of society,” said Jane Buchanan, deputy disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should immediately end its reliance on medical assessments that deny children access to education and move to include all children with disabilities in mainstream schools with their peers.”

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