UN CRPD Committee’s General Comment No 4 on the right to inclusive education
Education as a fundamental right is not only mentioned in the Preamble of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) that was ratified by the EU in January 2011, but is also laid out in one of its articles, dedicated to the topic of education (article 24). This article points out, among other aspects, that state parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure “that the education of persons, and in particular children, who are blind, deaf or deafblind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual, and in environments which maximize academic and social development.” This explicitly entails measures that “facilitate the learning of [a national/regional] sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community.”
In August of 2016, the UN CRPD committee published a General Comment on the right to inclusive education created by the UN CRPD. EUD welcomes the publication of a general comment on article 24 on education, as quality education is crucial for persons with disabilities, including deaf persons, to fully develop their capacities, to gain employment and to be fully included into all aspects of society.
However, the General Comment fails to include several elements that from the perspective of various deaf-led organisations and academic researchers are required to ensure that deaf children have a meaningful, equitable and participatory learning experience, are socially included and are academically successful in inclusive education. Therefore, we would like to add detail to the discussion on how to provide adequate inclusive education for deaf learners.
2 Analysis of the general comment
2.1 Positive aspects
We welcome the definition of inclusive education, as involving a “process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all learners of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and the environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences.”
EUD fully agrees with the declaration of the right to accessibility and immediate provision of reasonable accommodation as well as their appropriate definition. We also strongly support the notion that the reasonable accommodation must be free of charge and the idea that the failure to provide such accommodation constitutes discrimination.
We appreciate that several of the examples of reasonable accommodation highlight provisions that can support the inclusion of deaf learners in a mainstream classroom. From EUD’s perspective, we agree that this needs to involve materials and subjects in the national/regional sign language as well as the free provision of professional sign language interpreters and assistive technology (eg. for deaf cochlear implant and hearing aid users). However, we also feel it is necessary to explicitly include the adaptive design of the learning environment as well as appropriate information and communication technology.
We also fully agree that the cultures and languages of persons with disabilities – here deaf persons - must be respected within the education system, e.g. through curricula changes, including lessons on deaf culture and history. To add more detail to this provision, we would like to highlight that visual teaching methods and materials, such as use of images, subtitled videos, speech-to-text services that can support deaf students in taking notes, etc., need to be preferred when teaching deaf learners, as visual information is fully accessible to deaf learners. However, as we will point out in 2.2, from our point of view, some of these measures quoted in the general comment are not sufficient to allow deaf persons to have a fully meaningful educational experience.
We also strongly support the specific provisions applicable to deaf learners, including their right to learn and express themselves in their national/regional sign language; and that measures are needed to “recognise and promote the linguistic identity of the deaf community”. We also concur that it is crucial to strengthen opportunities for learners to participate fully in activities in and outside of the classroom, as this will allow them to develop academically and personally in their preferred languages.
Moreover, we also fully agree that teachers working in inclusive education settings who teach deaf learners need certain core competencies and values, such as the human rights model of disabilities, sign language, linguistic identity and deaf culture. These also need to be included in teacher education, so that teachers are prepared for teaching deaf students.
We concur that it is crucial for state parties to “invest in and support the recruitment and continuous education of teachers with disabilities.” Their presence will indeed “promote equal rights for persons with disabilities to enter the teaching profession, bring unique expertise and skills into learning environments, contribute to breaking down barriers, and serve as important role models.” The latter is especially crucial for deaf learners, as many deaf children experience difficulties in developing their sign language skills linked to late exposure, especially if born to hearing parents, as well as in achieving equal access to education. Deaf teachers acting as linguistic role models can provide highly valuable input: they are best equipped to teach sign language at native level, to which deaf learners have the right, and on a social level can “express […] what it means to be deaf and [….] demonstrate how to interact effectively with hearing people as a bilingual/bicultural individual”. Finally, they can be an example of a successful deaf professional who is fully integrated in society.
Finally, we agree that there is a need for disaggregated data and evidence addressing the barriers that prevent persons with disabilities, including deaf persons, from having access to and making progress in inclusive education so as to enable the adoption of effective measures to remove these barriers. This is crucial in order to show where a lack of inclusiveness in the current mainstream education systems prevails, which can lead to doubts among parents of learners with disabilities as well as concerned learners themselves regarding its effectiveness in providing them with full and equal access to education, thus preventing effective inclusion.
2.2 Aspects to be addressed
It is understandable that the legal language of the UN CRPD as well as of the General Comment involves a general choice of words that aims at being applicable to all persons with disabilities. However, we believe that, therefore, the specific circumstances of certain groups – here the deaf community – have been disregarded to a certain extent within the general comment. To ensure that deaf children have a meaningful equitable and participatory learning experience, while being socially included and achieving academic success, we would like to highlight several aspects of the General Comment that we believe need to addressed and taken into account.
For instance, the General Comment states that “[…] for many [persons with disabilities] education is available only in settings where […] the education they receive is of an inferior quality.” This is not necessarily the case for deaf learners, specifically for those who go to quality deaf schools, which teach learners in sign language, follow a standard curriculum and award diplomas equal to those awarded at mainstream schools. Research shows that “deaf children [who are] given quality education multi-lingually (i.e. in sign language and the written/spoken language) are most likely to succeed academically”. This is why, according to some researchers, “deaf schools [have been] the key places for deaf children to learn sign language and to develop and share their linguistic and cultural identity” and that “schools in which the majority of learners are hearing may present barriers to deaf learners, [if] they lack the supportive and inclusive signing environments that deaf learners require to thrive and to acquire a strong sense of linguistic and cultural identity.” Therefore, it has been argued that “governments closing deaf schools [which teach deaf learners in sign language], and not providing sign language environments in inclusive education at the same time, are violating the intent of the Article 24.”
Furthermore, the General Comment states that “for many [persons with disabilities], education is available only in settings where persons with disabilities are isolated from their peers.” From a deaf perspective, this definition of “peers” is not necessarily accurate: A deaf learner, who is part of a linguistic community of deaf sign language users, might consider other deaf sign language using learners to be his or her peers rather than hearing learners who do not use the same language. According to this understanding of “peers”, deaf learners would not be isolated in a deaf school, while they would be isolated if they were taught in mainstream schools without deaf peers. Indeed, this would be the case no matter how much individualised educational support (e.g. sign language interpretation) is provided in the classroom. EUD thus wants to emphasise strongly that if deaf sign language using learners are to be included in a mainstream classroom, that it is crucial for them to be taught together with other deaf peers bilingually in sign and written/spoken language, by a teacher or co-teacher using proficient sign language. Only if this is the case, it can be considered a good practice example of inclusive education for deaf sign language using learners.
Furthermore, the General Comment highlights that two education systems, which it defines as “a mainstream education system and a special/segregated education system” cannot be maintained in parallel. The comment defines segregation as a situation “when the education of learners with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular impairment or to various impairments, in isolation from learners without disabilities.” In this context, it is important to understand that many deaf persons, particularly native sign language users, perceive themselves as a linguistic minority, not as a disability group. Therefore, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) has argued that bilingual education in sign language and the national/regional written language, provided by teachers who are proficient in sign language “should not be seen as “special education” or “segregated education”, as the disability movement understands it, but as a form of education within an inclusive education system”. From this perspective, it could be compared to a school teaching in a language that is not the majority language of the country where it is situated, with the goal to provide education to a linguistic minority in the language of their choice. Furthermore, for EUD, the above-mentioned definition of segregation seems to include, for example, deaf units in mainstream schools, where a group of deaf learners could be taught by a teacher proficient in sign language to develop their linguistic skills while reuniting with their hearing class mates for other subjects and breaks. The International Disability Alliance (IDA) has argued that “for deaf, blind, deaf blind and in some cases for hard of hearing students as well, the option for separate learning environments must be understood as necessary to “maximize academic and social development”.” From EUD’s perspective, deaf units that ensure inclusion through close cooperation with their host mainstream school can be a good practice example for inclusive education for deaf learners. Indeed, these units can simultaneously provide inclusion and sign language environments for deaf learners. Another way of ensuring inclusion of deaf learners as well as sign language environments could be for deaf schools that use sign language to open their doors to hearing learners, providing education in sign and spoken/written language for all (ensuring, in a way, “reverse inclusion”). Yet another option could be for a deaf school to collaborate closely with a mainstream school to provide a larger choice of classes in sign as well as spoken/written language to both deaf and hearing learners. Finally, a mainstream school that provides bilingual education in the same classroom to a group of hearing and a group of deaf children in both sign and spoken language by two teachers, with at least one of them using sign language proficiently, can also be such a good practice example. EUD believes that deaf learners should have options that allow them to choose the environment that will maximise their individual academic and social development, as highlighted by the UN CRPD.
Linked to the issue of deaf learners being taught together with deaf peers is the paragraph of the General Comment stating “that persons with disabilities shall be able to attend primary and secondary schools within the communities where they live and that learners should not be sent away from home.” However, as previously highlighted with regards to the definition of the term “peers”, deaf learners might consider their community to be the often geographically dispersed deaf community, basing the definition of community on the idea of a linguistic, rather than a proximal community. This interpretation is confirmed by researchers highlighting that WFD, during the UN CRPD negotiations attempted to include the topic of linguistic rights into the Convention, stating that “State parties shall ensure all... [people] with disabilities have full access to inclusive education in their own community in the language of their own choice in terms of delivery of education information.”
Furthermore, from a deaf perspective, the above mentioned paragraph of the General Comment prescribing that learners with disabilities should be taught locally as well as the paragraph asking States Parties to take measures to “ensure that neither segregation nor integration are taking place, either formally or informally” are in direct contradiction with the paragraph stating that all learners should be provided “[…] the environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences.” EUD believes that the obligation for learners to be enrolled in a local school will often prevent parents and learners with disabilities from choosing what they believe to be such an environment. For instance, parents and deaf learners might want to choose enrolment in a school with more deaf peers, even if that school is not necessarily close to the place of residence. Stipulating the location and type of (the) school will often hinder them in their freedom of choice. This is increasingly relevant, as we see a decreasing number of deaf sign language users in Europe. This is linked to the growing prevalence of deaf children who have a cochlear implant and/or wear a hearing aid, combined with a lack of awareness-raising about the importance of sign language acquisition for all deaf learners due to a still predominating medical model of disability. Considering that this leads to decreasing numbers of deaf sign language using children living in the same neighbourhood, restricting parents in their choice of school for their deaf child entails the risk, as highlighted above, of endangering the deaf learner’s access to a sign language environment and their linguistic community.
As a deaf-led international non-governmental organisation composed of National Associations of the Deaf working on deaf rights with expertise in education, EUD believes that concerns about inclusive education within the deaf community are generally not based on stereotypes, as indicated in the general comment. Rather, in our experience, they are often based on past experiences with a mainstream education system that was not genuinely inclusive as per the definition of inclusive education provided in the General Comment, but where integration as per the definition in the General Comment was required from the deaf learner. This is one of several aspects that might have led to (especially deaf) parents choosing a deaf school teaching in sign language over a not fully inclusive mainstream school for their deaf children. These valid concerns can only be alleviated if parents and learners have the guarantee that a deaf learner will be as academically successful, as well as linguistically and socially included, in inclusive schools as many have been in deaf schools teaching in sign language.
We would like to make a few additional recommendations that we believe need to be implemented for the creation of fully inclusive educational environments that allow deaf learners to flourish academically, linguistically and personally:
3. 1 Potential and limitations of sign language interpretation use in mainstream education
The provision of sign language interpretation in class can provide for accessible teaching content for some deaf learners, particularly those with an advanced native level of sign enrolled in higher levels of education, and in some contexts, for example to facilitate discussions in an inclusive classroom. However, it is not sufficient to allow all deaf learners to develop their linguistic skills at the same level as hearing learners or to be fully included in the mainstream classroom:
Content taught by a hearing teacher to a majority of hearing learners that is merely interpreted for deaf learners cannot fully replace the quality education a trained educational professional teaching deaf learners in their language can provide. This has been understood by the drafters of article 24 of the Convention, which states that, as quoted above, “the education of persons, and in particular children, who are blind, deaf or deafblind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages”, and not with the support of the most appropriate languages, meaning through sign language interpretation. This is why it is crucial for state parties to the Convention to create and sufficiently invest in the access of deaf students to tertiary education, including for deaf students to study to become teachers or sign language teachers that can teach current and future teachers how to teach in sign language. This involves the employment of deaf professors who can teach in sign language as well as the sufficient provision of sign language interpreters to allow deaf students access to university, the creation of curricula for these study courses, recognised diploma and procedures to recognise professional qualifications etc.
Furthermore, it needs to be highlighted that 90-95% deaf children are born to hearing parents who likely have no previous knowledge of sign language. As many of these children therefore do not grow up with sign language as their native language, providing sign language interpretation in school, especially to learners whose sign language is not yet fully developed, is not sufficient to replace acquiring sign language from a signing teacher and a signing peer group of deaf peers. This is why access to teachers with proficiency in sign language teaching a group of deaf learners, with sign language being the language of instruction, is indispensable for compliance with the General Comment, which stipulates that children have the right to be taught in their own language. This can be realised through various options that have been highlighted above.
3.2 Sign language acquisition by hearing teachers and peers interacting with deaf learners
We strongly believe that it is crucial that hearing teachers teaching deaf learners, even in collaboration with a signing co-teacher, know sign language to ensure that deaf children can “achieve […] their fullest possible social integration and individual development.” Indeed, other staff and hearing classmates of deaf learners should also learn sign language: the latter knowing sign language would facilitate the personal development of deaf learners in contact with their hearing classmates in breaks and social interaction.
Furthermore, more of the general hearing population acquiring sign languages and learning about deaf rights would, in the long run, have a positive impact on the inclusion of deaf persons in all areas of life.
3.3 Importance of disaggregated data on deafness and research on deaf children in inclusive education
As highlighted above, disaggregated data on persons with disabilities in education is crucial. Additionally, we would like to point out the need to disaggregate data according to disability groups. For instance, the lack of data on the number of deaf persons, including deaf sign language users, in Europe creates barriers to successful advocacy for deaf rights, including for the rights and needs of deaf learners in inclusive education. Indeed, it is difficult to do advocacy work, or justify demands for further funding allocation to ensure deaf-inclusive education, without being able to provide numbers of deaf learners, including those who use sign language. Collecting data disaggregated by disability groups would be a crucial step to improving this situation, but this is still not being done at European level.
Furthermore, more research on inclusive education for deaf learners, as well as wider dissemination and application of existing research, is crucial to improve the implementation of features of inclusive education environments required to ensure that deaf learners have a successful and fully participatory learning experience in inclusive schools.
EUD understands the importance of creating a fully inclusive general education system for all, as this will allow learners with and without disabilities to interact with each other, leading to the inclusion of learners with disabilities as well as to a better awareness of disability rights, accessibility and reasonable accommodation in the general population. However, the creation of such a system must not leave learners with certain disabilities, here deaf learners, excluded from quality education, social inclusion and language acquisition. Therefore, we strongly believe that a holistic approach to inclusive education, where the learning environment is modified to be inclusive for all deaf learners, as described above, is crucial to allow them to fully participate and thrive academically, linguistically and socially in inclusive schools.
European Union of the Deaf position paper on cochlear implants (2013).
International Disability Alliance (IDA): Position Paper on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Other Instruments (2008), p. 9, see: International Disability Alliance (IDA): Position Paper on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Other Instruments (2008), p. 9.
Jones, M.A.: Deafness as Culture: A Psychosocial Perspective, in: Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring 2002, Volume 22, No. 2, pages 51-60 (1993).
Ladd, P.: “Understanding Deaf culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters (2003).
Murray, J., De Meulder, M., le Maire, D.: “An Education in Sign Language as a Human Right? An analysis of the legislative history and on-going interpretation of Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”, (2016).
Reuter, K. (edt.), UNCRPD implementation in Europe – A Deaf Perspective. Article 24 : Education, Brussels: EUD (upcoming, 2017)
Singleton, J. L, Morgan, D. D : “Natural Signed Language Acquisition within the Social Context of the Classroom”, in: Schick, B., Markschark, M., Spencer, P.E (edt.). : Advances in the Sign Language Development of Deaf Children, Oxford University Press (2006).
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).
UN CRPD Committee, General comment No 4: Right to inclusive education (2016).
World Federation of the Deaf, Position Paper on the Language Rights of Deaf Children (2016).
World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), European Union of the Deaf (EUD), World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section (WFDYS) and European Union of the Deaf Youth (EUDY): Submission on the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' Draft General Comment on the right to inclusive education (article 24).
 UN CRPD, article 24 (3) (c).
 UN CRPD, article 24 (3) (b).
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 11.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 28.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 17.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 31.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 30.
 For example, in Belgium, there is no national sign language, but two regional ones (Flemish sign language and French Belgian sign language).
 See General Comment No 4, paragraphs 25.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraphs 35 (b).
 General Comment No 4, paragraphs 35 (b).
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 34
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 12 (d)
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 37.
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 37.
 See WFD, EUD, WFDYS, EUDY: Submission on the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' Draft General Comment on the right to inclusive education (article 24), p. 4.
 Singleton, J. L, Morgan, D. D (2006) p. 359.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 68.
 General Comment, paragraph 3.
 See Murray, De Meulder & le Maire (2016), pp. 23-24.
WFD Position Paper on the Language Rights of Deaf Children (2016), p. 1.
 Murray, De Meulder & le Maire (2016), p. 19.
 WFD Position Paper on the Language Rights of Deaf Children (2016), p. 2.
 Murray, De Meulder & le Maire (2016), p. 19.
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 3.
See WFD, EUD, WFDYS, EUDY: Submission on the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' Draft General Comment on the right to inclusive education (article 24), p. 2.
 See WFD, EUD, WFDYS, EUDY: Submission on the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' Draft General Comment on the right to inclusive education (article 24), p. 2.
General Comment No 4, paragraph 40.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 40.
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 11.
Jones, M.A. (1993).
Murray, De Meulder & le Maire (2016), p. 9.
IDA: Position Paper on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Other Instruments (2008), p. 8.
Different good practice examples on how inclusive education can be provided for deaf learners will be featured in the upcoming publication by Reuter, K. (edt.), UNCRPD implementation in Europe – A Deaf Perspective. Article 24 : Education, Brussels: EUD (2017).
See UN CRPD, article 24 (3) (c).
General Comment No 4, paragraph 27.
Murray, De Meulder & le Maire (2016), p. 9.
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 12 (i).
 General Comment No 4, paragraph 11.
 EUD position paper on cochlear implants (2013).
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 4c.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 11.
 See General Comment No 4, paragraph 11.
 The bold effect has been added by the writer of this position paper.
UN CRPD article 24, paragraph 3 (c).
See Ladd (2003).
See Murray, De Meulder & le Maire (2016), p. 16.
See General Comment No 4, paragraph 35 (b).
General Comment No 4, paragraph 17.