RIGA 2010: International Conference on Inclusive Education

From 11-14 July 2010, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) was pleased to co-host Riga 2010: Embracing Inclusive Approaches for Children and Youth with Special Education Needs. The conference, co-hosted by CEC, The Division of International Special Education and Services, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Center for Education Initiatives, and the International Step by Step Association, under the patronage of the Latvian First Lady Lilita Zatlere, took place in Riga, Latvia.

This conference was intended for all those who believe that children and youth with special education needs deserve all possible support to develop their potential and become equal members of society; who agree that inclusive education is the best way to guarantee the rights of each child; who want to learn about interesting innovations and best practices for making the world a more inclusive place for every child, as well as to contribute their own experiences.

As more and more countries around the world strive toward the goals of the Education for All initiative, there is growing political will and grassroots pressure to demand for education systems to adopt inclusive approaches in order to meet the needs of children and youth who have traditionally been excluded from mainstream education or have been denied education.

To explore the latest research, best practices, and innovations in making the world a better place for each child, regardless of their abilities and needs, more than 500 educational practitioners, researchers, policy makers, and NGO activists from more than 60 countries from Europe and around the world gathered in beautiful Riga to attend the conference, which was organized in partnership with and with support from the Open Society Institute, and also with the technical support and participation of UNICEF CEE/CIS.

Lilita Zatlere, First Lady of the Republic of Latvia Lilita Zatlere, First Lady of the Republic of Latvia

The conference was an important event for Latvia and the whole CEE/CIS region. The Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Latvia, UNESCO Latvian National Comission, Riga City Council, Soros Foundation-Latvia, and many other organizations and municipalities were instrumental in preparing for and hosting the event, as well as enabling more than 110 researchers and practitioners from Latvia to take part in the conference, learn from the guests, and share experiences from the event's host country. Participants discussed how more extensive partnerships can be developed at all levels around the Baltic Sea and in the post-communist region, as well as how the East and West can work together more closely, benefiting and learning from each other's experiences.

The concept of the conference was based on research and practice findings that have shown abundant benefits, both academic and social, to all children and youth involved in inclusive education programs. However, simply placing children with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms without appropriate planning, commitment, and support does not guarantee positive outcomes.

L-R: Alice Farling, President, Division of International Special Education and Services (DISES), Tatjana Koke, Minister of Education and Science, Republic of Latvia, Thomas P. Gumpel, Department of Special Education, Carlow University, Division of International Special Education and Services (DISES), Lilita Zatlere, First Lady of the Republic of Latvia, Daiga Zake, Director, Center for Education Initiatives (CEI), Jacqueline L. Mault, President, Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), Siobhan Fitzparick, President of the Board, International Step by Step Association (ISSA)

As emphasized by one of the speakers, Prof. Ulf Janson from Sweden, inclusive education should not be considered a strategy for how to work with children with special educational needs. Inclusion reflects fundamental principles in society celebrating diversity while promoting development and learning for everyone, and providing for social participation in learning and caring environments, peer relations, and interactions.

In this exciting and prestigious international event, participants shared and learned about evidenced-based practices with an emphasis on access, quality, and equity; creative, comprehensive inclusive education approaches; innovations in creating inclusive schools; and integrating research into practice to create stronger links with stakeholders.

Participants worked together to explore opportunities to align inclusive special education implementation with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and UNESCO's Education for All.

Conference participants welcomed to the conference a diverse roster of distinguished keynote speakers whose inspirational speeches addressed the issue of inclusive approaches from different angles: Gunta Anca, Chair, Latvian Umbrella Body for Disability Organizations SUSTENTO, Riga, Latvia; Dr. Elena Kozhevnikova, Director, Early Intervention Institute, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation; Dr. Phyllis Magrab, Director, Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, Washington, D.C., USA; Marope Mmantsetsa, Director of Division for the Promotion of Basic Education, UNESCO, France; Dr. Deborah Ziegler, Associate Executive Director, Policy & Advocacy Services, Council for Exceptional Children, Arlington, Virginia, USA.

In the opening keynote Dr. Phyllis Magrab, Director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, reminded participants that the desired results of an inclusive approach are a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and the development and learning of each child with special educational needs to reach their full potential. Twenty years of research have proved that there are several important aspects for gaining success: valuing differences, promoting a culture of equality of opportunity, partnering with families, individualizing learning opportunities and creating a wide range of teaching strategies to promote collaboration across the human service delivery system.

Gunta Anca, Chair of the Latvian Umbrella Body for Disability Organizations SUSTENTO, told her story of being a girl who was excluded from school on the 1st of September, a widespread and well-loved holiday celebrating the beginning of the new school year in the region, to becoming an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. SUSTENTO unites 32 organizations, the members of which are people with disabilities and chronic diseases who work together toward better policies to prevent discrimination and safeguard human rights. Over the years, NGOs have become key players in the governmental negotiation process. With their specialized knowledge, technical expertise, research capacities and local contacts, NGOs should take on a more important role in reinforcing changes in the education systems to ensure that high quality education is available and accessible to all pupils with disabilities, Anca said.

Attendees arrive for the Opening Ceremony/Plenary Session 1 Attendees arrive for the Opening Ceremony/Plenary Session 1

A special Early Years Strand in the conference was hosted by ISSA. This strand emphasized the importance of early intervention and support for development, explored special needs as an outcome of complex interactions between health conditions and the physical and social environment, and offered practical solutions to deal with complex issues which may prevent young children from learning and from developing to their full potential.

ISSA's approach to inclusive education was reflected also by the presentation of Marope Mmantsetsa, Director of Division for the Promotion of Basic Education, UNESCO, who with great passion reminded participants that we have to start at the beginning, not at the end, and early childhood education and care is a critical entry point to inclusive human capital development. In September 2010, UNESCO will host a World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Building the Wealth of Nations in Moscow. This event will be another opportunity to raise important questions and to mobilize political will, research findings, and professional expertise to effect change on behalf of children and their families.

Describing differences between inclusive and traditional approaches, Dr. Elena Kozhevnikova, Director of the Early Intervention Institute, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, stressed that we have to create possibilities for children to be children, to play and be happy, making the environment and life more suitable for them and their families, not trying to correct children to fit better in the existing systems.

Deborah A. Ziegler, Associate Executive Director for Policy and Advocacy Services at the Council for Exceptional Children, highlighted various provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and identified key aspects of successful advocacy campaigns. She emphasized the importance of well articulated policy that emanates from a body of research and the responsibility of State parties to provide appropriate fiscal resources consistently in order to provide for high quality education that is aligned to high standards.

A standing-room-only session
A standing-room-only session

In the closing session Ingrida Circene, Member of the Latvian Parliament and a medical doctor by education and professional background addressed participants, emphasizing how important it is to join forces of different specialists to make sure that each child, especially children with social educational needs, receives more love, more understanding, and more support from society. The essence of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, according to Circene, can be expressed in a very simple way: "life-long equal opportunities for everybody; life-long equal rights for everybody."

In the week following the conference, when many conference participants continued to enjoy Latvia or other Baltic States. Latvian First Lady Lilita Zatlere invited representatives of the organizers and participants of the conference for reflection on the event and what should be next steps in the direction of the inclusive education towards inclusive society in Latvia.

Read CASE's July-August-September 2010 newsletter for additional conference coverage from CASE President Dr. Mary V. Kealy.

For more information about the conference, please contact Eva Izsak at eizsak@issa.hu

Select Presentations from RIGA 2010

From Marginalization to Inclusion: Salamanca And the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Join Board Members of the Division of International Special Education and Services as they describe their perceptions on Inclusive Education around the world based on their own international experiences and collaboration with educational partners around the world.   Specific examples will be presented.  Be part of the conversation and the search for solutions! The focus is on Access to a Quality Education for All!

Where Does Education for Social Justice Best Fit for Early Years Educators
This presentation will look at how education for social justice topics of inclusion, diversity and rights-based educational principles have implemented in early years’ educators in-service trainings in the International Step by Step Association (ISSA’s) member NGOs and how they can become part of the  mainstream general educational teacher training programs.

Towards Roma Inclusion: A Review of Roma Education Initiatives in Central and South Eastern Europe
This presentation is based on the UNICEF paper, Towards Roma Inclusion: A Review of Roma Education Initiatives in CEE and SEE. Initially presented at the 2008 ISSA conference, two newly added programmes from Serbia and Hungary will be described in this presentation, as well as an initiative on Roma ECDE.

Strengthening Inclusiveness of Education System: Focus on Deinstitutionalization
UNICEF Armenia has directly supported inclusive education reforms for nearly a decade. This presentation will highlight the major supports given to inclusive education in Armenia, divided into three implementation phases. It will also highlight key linkages between deinstitutionalization and inclusive education. Following this, the way forward will be discussed.

Developing Early Childhood Intervention Services:Using Existing Resources and Applying New Concepts
Vulnerable children from birth to three years with high-risk situations, developmental delays, malnutrition, or disabilities require individualised and intensive Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) services. Concepts and guidelines for developing ECI services in CEE/CIS, presented in Early Childhood Intervention, Special Education, and Inclusion: A Focus on Belarus (UNICEF), will be discussed.

Partner and Supporting Organizations

Partner organizations:

CEI International Step by Step Association
Council for Exceptional Children and the Division of International Special Education and Services

Supporting organizations:

Latvian Ministry of Education and Science
Latvian National Commission for UNESCO
Open Society Institute
UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund)

Sponsoring organization:

Riga City Council