Like Australia and many other countries, Portugal has enacted legislation making disability discrimination in education unlawful. However, unlike Australia, Portugal has gone much further in enacting an explicit legal framework for the inclusion in education of students with and without disability.
Since 2008 Portugal has had in place laws envisioning the provision of education to all students, without exception, in their local regular school in accordance with Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
These laws have also created explicit obligations requiring the adjustment of the educational process to include students with disability and have led to the establishment of a national network of Information and Communication Technology Resource Centres to support general education schools, which assess students’ needs for assistive technology. Consistent with the obligation under the CRPD for countries to progressively and systemically transform their domestic education systems to genuinely inclusive systems, Decree-Law 3/08 also initiated a “process of reorientation” for most of Portugal’s segregated special schools, transforming them into Resource Centres for Inclusion. These Centres provide specialised support assistance to mainstream schools through partnerships with school clusters and their role includes facilitating access to education, training, work, leisure, social participation and autonomy.
However, over the following ten year period and as a result of monitoring and evaluation of the current model, it became clear that the objectives of the 2008 Law were being compromised by a range of issues, including:
- considerable difficulties in changing school attitudes and resource allocation;
- the practice of “integration” (placing students with disabilities in regular classrooms but with inadequate supports and curricula modifications) was often implemented in the name of “inclusion”;
- a rigid focus on diagnostic (health/medical) categorisations of “disability” which in practice undermined focus on the inclusion of ALL students, with or without identified disabilities and in particular a significant group of children who may require additional support despite not having a diagnostic label – potentially leading to an accumulation of unmet need then becoming chronic and permanent disadvantage; and
- a focus on individualised “retrofit” adjustments rather than broader general accessibility through universal design approaches.
In light of these concerns, new Law Decree DL 54-2018 (New Law) was developed over an 18 month consultation period, together with Portugal’s public and private school sectors, teachers associations and unions, education academic organisations, parent associations and disability representative associations, and was adopted on 6 July 2018. The English version of the Law was officially released on 3 August 2018 (click here to read).
The New Law requires that the provision of supports for all students be determined, managed and provided at the regular school level in regular classrooms, with local multidisciplinary teams responsible for determining what support is necessary to ensure ALL students (regardless of labels, categorisation or a determination of disability) have access to, and the means to participate effectively, in education with a view to full inclusion in society.
Accordingly, in the spirit of the Salamanca Statement and the motto “All Means All”, educational support services (including specialised education services) are available in regular schools for ALL students who need them, regardless of functional impairment, ethnicity, social/economic status, etc. In that regard the New Law, which describes its effect as “moving away from the rationale that it is necessary to categorise to intervene”, aims to support a paradigm shift based on universal access and inclusion for all.
The preamble to the New Law provides:
“At the centre of the school activity are the curriculum and student learning. In this assumption, this decree-law has as a central axis of orientation the need of each school to recognise 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.”
The key features of the New Law, which is based on principles of universal design for learning and a multi-level approach to curriculum access, include:
- Schools being required to develop a documented framework for the creation of an inclusive school culture that values diversity.
- School multi-disciplinary teams being responsible for raising awareness of the need for school cultural and process transformation at a whole-of-school level, while discharging their main function of identifying, evaluating and adjusting specific measures and strategies to support the learning of every student and overcoming barriers (including environmental) to every students’ individualised learning.
- Emphasis on autonomy and responsibility for inclusion at the individual school level – with external specialised support when required – the preamble to the New Law stating:
“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 principle of “customization” – student-centered differentiated educational planning so that measures are decided on a case-by-case basis according to their specific needs, potential, interests and preferences, through a multi-level graduated approach comprised of:
- universal measures – applicable to all students;
- selective measures – to address deficiencies in universal measures – to be sourced from the school’s resources; and
- additional measures – to address more intense communication, interaction, cognitive or learning difficulties that require specialised resources – including specialised teachers from outside the school supporting and co-teaching with the classroom teacher.
- Parents as well as teachers, have the right to initiate a multi-disciplinary team assessment of whether a student should be receiving additional support through selective or additional measures.
- A general and strong emphasis on greater parental involvement as partners – with parents and guardians having the right to participation and information regarding all aspects of their child’s educational process – including participation in all multi-disciplinary team meetings, preparation and evaluation of individual education plans and access to their child’s school files and records.
- All students with individualised education plans are also to have individualised transition plans in place 3 years before the end of secondary schooling to promote transition to post-school life, including in employment and community.
The New Law is a natural further step in Portugal transferring the expertise and resources of its former separate “special education” system for students with significant disability to supporting the inclusion of all students in regular classrooms within mainstream schools. This is what all countries are being called to do under Article 24 of the CRPD, as clarified by General Comment No. 4 (the Right to Inclusive Education), which makes it clear that the full realization of Article 24 “is not compatible with sustaining two systems of education: mainstream and special/segregated education systems” (paragraph 39) and consistently with this, calls for “a transfer of resources from segregated to inclusive environments” (paragraph 68).
All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education offers our warmest congratulations to the Government and people of Portugal for their commitment to adopting a systemic approach to inclusive education, as the foundation of an equitable and inclusive society for all.[Cover photo © Bruno Luz]