From including students with disabilities to Inclusive Education: Portugal amends its education law

This post has been submitted by Paula Hunt, Senior Technical Advisor, Catalyst for Inclusive Education.

Inclusive Education, as first envisioned and promoted by the Salamanca Statement, has guided much of the education pathways in Portugal since 1995. However, this was not always the case. While the education of children with disabilities has been central to Portugal’s social development since the 1970’s, education for children with disabilities was traditionally provided in segregated settings, by a cadre of specialized professionals (special education), until the early 2000’s.

In 2008, in an effort to uphold its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and ensure the “progressive realization” of inclusion, the Portuguese government approved a Law-Decree that envisioned the implementation of inclusive education by creating the conditions necessary for the education for children with disabilities to be provided in each child’s neighborhood school. Modeled after existing best-practices, promoting the social-model of disability, the 2008 Decree called for the tailoring of the education experience to each student, and disability to be conceptualized according to functional limitations, by a team of multi-disciplinary professionals, as early as possible (consistent with the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, ICF).

While the 2008 Law-Decree worked from the assumption that a system that is good for children with disabilities is good for everyone, its implementation was problematic:

1) It was heavily reliant of categorization, it required that children were identified, categorized, and an intervention planned for, in order to access supports;

2) It was heavily reliant of the services of special education professionals, thus maintaining a parallel system of education;

3) It allowed for selective segregation within the neighborhood schools, whereby children with disabilities would spend time in segregated settings within a regular school;

4) Because it required the official identification of a functional limitation, children who did not qualify but required a more intensive level of support (i.e. migrants, refugees, the very poor, children with some degree of learning difficulty not on the threshold of a functional limitation, etc.) had difficulty accessing the services/accommodations needed to ensure their full participation, because special education resources were restricted to identified children with disabilities.

The new Law-Decree 54 approved on 6 July 2018, attempts to respond to these issues. Developed over the last 18 months, it aims to respond to UN recommendations related to social inclusion, as well as continue to uphold the commitments of the CRPD. Rather than simply enjoying the fruits of its considerable efforts towards ensuring the inclusion of children with disabilities in education, Portugal engaged in a systematic process of self-assessment since 2008. Rather than looking for the best-practices to be replicated, it engaged in the systematic recording of lessons-learned for the last 10 years. Thus, a rigorous process of monitoring (and collecting data related to) early identification/intervention, out-of-school children, the situation of children with disabilities, graduation rates and tertiary enrollment, as well as post-secondary employment, as lead to a new Law-Decree.

Based on foundational democratic principles, Law-Decree 54 (2018) envisions the non-categorical tailoring of the education experience by each school, to each of its students, and “even in cases where greater difficulty in participating in the curriculum is identified, it is up to each school to define the process in which it identifies the barriers to learning with which the student is confronted, considering the diversity of strategies to overcome them, in order to ensure that each student has access to the curriculum and to the learning, taking each and every one to the limit of their own potential”.

The new law, developed in tandem with the new flexible Curriculum is “based on universal design for learning and a multilevel approach to access the curriculum. This approach is based on flexible curricular models, systematic monitoring of the effectiveness of the continuum of implemented interventions, the dialogue between teachers with parents or caregivers, and in the choice of measures to support learning, organized at different levels of intervention, according to the educational responses necessary for each student to acquire a common base of competences, valuing their potential and interests. Thus, there is a moving away from the rationale that it is necessary to categorize to intervene. Rather, it is sought to ensure that the Profile of the Students at the end of Compulsory Schooling is reached by all, even if it is through differentiated learning paths that allow each student to progress in the curriculum in a way that ensures their educational success”.

In a young democracy, a country currently fraught with dissent between teacher unions, school management committees, and the Ministry of Education, the new Law will be implemented in September, but not without difficulty. While considerable efforts have been made to ensure a healthy and lengthy public debate prior to the drafting of the final document, and training opportunities and materials have been developed and disseminated, implementation of the Law is the responsibility of each school: “(The) central axis of orientation (is) the need of each school to recognize the added value of the diversity of its students, finding ways to deal with that difference, adjusting the teaching processes to the individual characteristics and conditions of each student, mobilizing the means at its disposal so that everyone learns and participates in the life of the educational community”.

It is essential that all Inclusive Education supporters monitor the implementation of the new Law-Decree 54 in Portugal, and reflect upon the good practices and the lessons that will undoubtedly be learnt from this brave move forward.