Equality Doesn’t Always Mean Integration: The Right to Education for Neurodiverse People

by | Feb 8, 2023

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About Chelsea Wallis

Chelsea was formerly Managing Editor for the Oxford Human Rights Hub and a DPhil candidate and Ann Kennedy Scholar in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford. Her thesis addresses domestic abuse, human rights and feminist jurisprudence, focussing on First Nations Australians and Disabled people. Chelsea has convened the Oxford Feminist Jurisprudence Discussion Group, Oxford Children’s Rights Network, Bonavero Graduate Research Forum, and the Criminal Law Discussion Group, and has served as PGR representative on the faculty's Equality and Diversity Committee.

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Proponents of the rights of people with disabilities widely subscribe to the social model of disability: the belief that it is not the biological markers of disability that create injustice but rather that social, political, cultural and economic conditions are responsible for pathologising and marginalising disabled people. As such, human rights responses to disability typically focus on integration and inclusion as a means to full participation in society. For this reason, within the education context, emphasis is placed on enabling neurodiverse disabled learners to receive education within mainstream schools, by reducing barriers to participation and instituting reasonable accommodations with the goal of making schools a safe, healthy and accommodating environment in which all students can learn. However, such an approach fails to acknowledge that mainstream schools – even if they are to be appropriately resourced and supported by effective teacher training – fail to adequately cater to many neurodiverse students’ learning differences and environmental/sensory needs, as well as depriving them of valuable experiences of community-building and validation that neurodiversity-targeted schools may offer. This post thus considers how a flawed conception of ‘inclusivity’ in education has significant potential to harm neurodiverse learners – and especially those subject to intersectional marginalisation – despite its laudable intention of de-stigmatising and de-segregating those with disabilities.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) considers an inclusive education system to be a fundamental obligation for state parties, explaining in Article 24 that those with disabilities should be able to ‘receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education’. The goal of ‘full inclusion’ thus requires that neurodiverse learners should be integrated within mainstream classroom environments, with reasonable accommodations made to cater to their individual requirements (Article 24(2)(c)). Importantly, CRPD General Comment 4 clarifies that ‘segregated’ learning environments – for instance, schools that cater specifically to students with Autism or other specific learning difficulties, such as these examples in the UK context – breach the state’s obligation to promote full inclusion. As such, these schools may only be privately established and funded, creating for many an insurmountable financial barrier to enrolment (or reliance on philanthropy).

While inclusivity is a commendable goal, its conceptualisation through the CRPD and General Comment 4 is blinkered and operates to the practical disadvantage of many neurodivergent learners. Not only are mainstream educational spaces poorly adapted to the cognitive and sensory needs of neurodiverse people – frequently exacerbated by inadequate resourcing and teacher training – but an approach which explicitly proscribes any opportunity for specialised learning environments curtails the ability to build communities amongst neurodiverse students. This relational element of learning is foundational to the experiences of neurodiverse students, who rarely have the opportunity to come together with peers in fully-integrated schools. Neurodiversity advocates thus emphasise the importance of spaces in which neurodivergence can be celebrated: within mainstream schools, neurodiversity remains all too often branded in the language of deficit rather than difference (akin to the medical model of disability), and is seen as entailing cumbersome ‘accommodations’ which add to the burden of already overworked teaching staff.

Crucially, the risk of ostracisation for neurodiverse young people is amplified by intersectional oppression. To take Autism as an example, this condition is widely underdiagnosed amongst girls and women, people of colour, economically underprivileged groups, and gender-nonconforming people. As Dr Devon Price explains in Unmasking Autism, the advantage of radical visibility and ‘unmasked’ Autistic traits within the classroom is generally extended only to white, middle-class male students. When less privileged groups exhibit these same behaviours they are liable to be deemed deviant and may even be at risk of physical harm: “For Autistic people of colour, being seen as hostile or difficult can become downright dangerous”, attenuated by the tangible threat of institutionalisation or incarceration (p. 65). The pressure to conform and to ‘mask’ Autistic traits is therefore unevenly applied across social groups, and most severely affects those who are multiply marginalised. In the mainstream school setting, this has major implications for educational disadvantage due to the long-term harm (and exhaustion) which masking produces.

The CRPD’s mandate to ensure that neurodiverse students only attend mainstream schools creates a real risk of intersectional discrimination amongst learners. Though well-intentioned, its paternalistic regulatory framework is an unwelcome overreaction to previous generations’ exclusion of disabled learners from the classroom. A genuinely inclusive education system demands that careful attention be paid to the actual needs of neurodivergent young people and the voices of the wider neurodiverse community.


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