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Right to Education of Persons with Disabilities during COVID-19

On the 10th of November, the EUD attended an online webinar entitled ‘The Right to Education of Persons with Disabilities during the COVID-19 Pandemic’. The event was hosted by the Public Defender Ombudsman of Georgia and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI). Its purpose was to explore the right to inclusive education and its impact on children with disabilities, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed this concept.

Debbie Kohner, Secretary-General of ENNHRI, delivered the opening address, which highlighted that the arrival of COVID-19 and associated measures had exposed and exacerbated the pre-existing barriers that persons with disabilities face when participating in society. However, she stated that some countries have laws or policy approaches to try to include this group. The second opening address was presented by the Public Defender of Georgia, Nino Lomjaria, who said that it is no longer disputed that COVID-19 restrictions have had a disproportionately negative impact on the rights of persons with disabilities worldwide. She added that the most common measure used globally during the pandemic was the suspension of the learning process in the physical space of general education.

Katherine Pederos, the Acting Secretary of the UNCRPD Committee, reminded us that Article 24 provides the right to inclusive education, while Article 11 requires governments to protect our rights in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies. She stated that inclusive education for children with disabilities necessitates a transformation in culture, policy, and formal and informal educational environments. Furthermore, Mrs Pederos highlighted that the pandemic had created additional barriers such as lockdowns, lack of quality of online schooling and lack of individualised support and accommodation provided to children with disabilities.

Another speaker was Mrs Maureen Piggot, a Board Member at the EDF, who explained that ‘education is a vital issue for all children and adults with a disability because the quality of their educational experience determines their friendships, their position in society, their self-concept, and their opportunities and likelihood of employment in the future’. She argued that from the perspective of disability organisations, inclusion supports the social and emotional development and self-esteem of children with disabilities and increases their social acceptance by peers. Mrs Piggot concluded by stating that all children benefit by learning to be more accepting of all kinds of diversity and developing greater sensitivity to the needs of others. This is a benefit for the whole of society, not just for people with disabilities.

Anete Ilves, a legal counsellor at the Social, Economic and Cultural Rights Division with the Ombudsman’s Office of the Republic of Latvia, presented her country’s perspective on the right to education for children and young adults with disabilities. She said that the lockdowns had a severe impact on education and that Latvian schools had tried to ensure equal access but faced additional challenges, especially in regard to provision for learners with disabilities. Ms Ilves also highlighted accessibility obstacles faced by deaf children in online learning, including difficulties with subtitles and sign language interpreters.

This webinar reminded us that children with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodation, especially while in home-schooling, but face increasing restrictions and insufficient support in accessing their education. For deaf children and young persons, this includes in some cases not having a sign language interpreter or subtitles available in their online classes. The current pandemic has changed the dynamic of education for children across the EU, presenting a significant range of challenges but also the opportunity to make education far more accessible and inclusive.

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