President comes under fire for words on inclusive education, handicapped children

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

President Miloš Zeman stirred considerable controversy this week, suggesting that handicapped children in the Czech Republic would be better off not sharing classrooms with non-handicapped students. He made the statement against inclusive education at a rehabilitation institute in East Bohemia. His words provoked broad reaction, with many saying the stance clashed with progressive values.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The Czech head-of-state has once again made headlines by going against the grain, stating this week he was against so-called inclusive education, whereby children with special needs share classrooms with non-handicapped kids. Here is what Miloš Zeman said in Brandýs nad Orlicí this week:

“I am not a fan of the view that children with disabilities should be placed in classrooms with non-handicapped students because it is unfortunate for both groups…”

It didn’t take long for his words to draw sharp reaction with some saying they were ill-chosen at best; others charged that Miloš Zeman with demonstrating an extraordinary lack of understanding of the issue. It is widely understood that special needs students are almost always better off, if their disability allows it, to share classrooms with their non-handicapped peers. Tereza Laubeová is a Czech university student who admitted she had been hurt by the president’s words. She requires a wheelchair but attended regular schools as a child. Today, she is preparing to write the president an open letter.

Photo: Jos van Galen / freeimages
“I always went to school with non-handicapped children and none of them ever made me feel like I had a disability. They never bullied me, either. I would like to let the president know that the handicapped are people too. I think that there is room for introspection on his part and I think the president should consider his words in public much more carefully.”

Others taken aback by the president’s stance include Václav Krasa – former MP and head of the National Disability Council – who criticized the president’s words as leading to segregation and contravening international law; the country’s Ombudswoman Anna Šabatová called the statements unacceptable and unfortunate. And, the prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, himself – contrary to the president – said that the goal was for children to grow up as together as much as possible. In his view, it is the goal of any modern society to “create the best possible conditions for the integration of disabled children into the educational mainstream”. Other politicians agree. Ivana Dobešová is an MP for ANO, one of the parties in the coalition government:

Ivana Dobešová,  photo: archive of ANO
“The president’s words were most unfortunate, first and foremost because we can’t say that some people should fraternize only with ‘their equals’. We are ALL equals. The other thing which I think the president failed to realise is that schools today have advanced considerably, so that children with disabilities do not suffer ridicule or bullying. If the child is not particularly limited by their disability, they are not reminded of the fact by other students. In this respect, kids today set an example for adults. So I find Mr Zeman’s words unfortunate.”

On Friday, the president’s spokesman, Jiri Ovčáček explained on facebook that the president had not intended to insult those with disabilities but expressed a preference for practical schools to be retained, where special needs students would not suffer bullying.