Special expertise: When people with disabilities train managers

Msometimes Horst-Alexander Finke has his student teachers calculate chain tasks. You have 60 seconds. Or he dictates a text for them to take down, but which he only reads once. "I deliberately simulate overtaxing situations in order to make future teachers understand the dimensions of supposedly simple tasks for a child with learning disabilities," explains Finke.

He is one of six specially qualified education professionals employed on Institute for Inclusive Education, which belongs to the Christian-Albrechts-University (CAU) Kiel. The specialists plan and carry out a course within a university seminar.

The special feature: Finke and his colleagues are themselves people with disabilities. Cognitively limited in most cases, some also physically handicapped, visually impaired or restricted in terms of motor skills and speech.

They are examples of inclusion in the world of work, which is still rare in Germany: People with disabilities pass on their expertise and experiences with exclusion and barriers in everyday life to others who can use this knowledge in their work - above all as future teachers at schools and universities, but also as a team leader and HR manager in companies, in public administrations or in the police force.

For three years, the educational specialists, funded by Aktion Mensch and with funds from non-profit foundation Drachensee, qualified at the CAU for their job at universities and technical colleges in Schleswig-Holstein. They have been officially university employees since January 2022.

They learned how to prepare presentations, speak in front of large groups, initiate discussions among the students and then reflect on and follow up on the course.

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You don't notice Horst-Alexander Finke's limitations until he tells his story. He was born almost two months premature and developed hydrocephalus as a baby - the technical term for what is colloquially known as "hydrocephaly". This had completely reversed itself in later years.

However, damage to his optic nerve remained, as well as impairment of his fine motor skills and his reaction speed. The hydrocephalus also led to a learning disability. The articulate 58-year-old admits with a smile that eloquence is not his problem, but “the implementation of theoretical knowledge in concrete tasks”.

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Most people who are considered mentally handicapped are still largely excluded from tertiary education (apprenticeships) and work outside of sheltered workshops. Germany ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, which stipulates the right of disabled people with cognitive or physical disabilities to education, training and work. However, while inclusion in schools is still a challenge but not uncommon, the education and labor sectors are lagging behind.

According to the German Economic Institute, around 4.9 million 15 to 64-year-olds with a disability were available on the labor market in 2019, including almost 1.8 million with a mild disability and around 3.1 million with a severe disability. According to the Federal Statistical Office, far fewer actually worked: almost 2.9 million.

“It is important to let people with disabilities have their say”

The JOB project including the Verein Sozialhelden makes a critical assessment of the workshops for people with disabilities: For many of those who work there, it represents the opposite of inclusion, but is much more like a dead end from which they can no longer find their way out and to other gainful employment. It is important to offer regular training that will later make it possible to work outside of the workshops. According to the project organizers, the workshops themselves could also play a role in such training.

Finke's school and work biography also went without any real participation in the so-called tertiary sector: Before that, he had worked in a workshop of the Drachensee Foundation, among other things, later also for a printing shop and for administration, in the local logistics or in the post office. “But it was always simple activities that increasingly frustrated me and did not challenge me. I always had the feeling that I had so much knowledge lying idle and that it wasn't valued.” Then he found out about the qualification through the foundation.

Finke's colleague Laura Schwörer also has cognitive limitations: she was diagnosed with Asperger's with limitations in perception and orientation. She speaks in a low voice and seems very reserved, almost shy. Nevertheless, she emphasizes: “Teaching the students is always exciting for me, a joy and a fulfillment.”

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Before that, she had worked in a workshop for a number of years, like Finke. She also enjoyed the handicraft work there. But training students and giving them something to take with them is a comparatively more demanding job, which she also challenges herself. She doesn't have good memories of her own school days, which took her from a regular school to her secondary school leaving certificate:

"There was a harsh tone, without empathy for my special situation as a person with a disability," recalls the 33-year-old. It is all the more important for her to convey exactly this to the students and to sensitize them. Because: In teacher training at German universities, there is still a lack of practical preparation for everyday school life with inclusion.

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"It is important not only to talk about people with disabilities and to teach students something about it, but to let them speak as experts on their own behalf," says Dorothea Keudel-Kaiser. The political scientist is responsible for the transfer of experience to other federal states at the Kiel Institute for Inclusive Education. "Ultimately, it's about how an inclusive living and working environment must be designed so that everyone can live and work well in it. It is essential that people with and without disabilities shape this together.”

A first important step has been taken with the qualification of the educational specialists - the Kiel model is setting standards, reports Keudel-Kaiser: In Baden-Württemberg, in North Rhine-Westphalia, in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania there have already been or are currently becoming people qualified according to the same model at universities for the educational mandate.

The most important thing, says the transfer officer, is that the next step is taken into account when qualifying: “The main thing is permanent employment on the general labor market after successful qualification – as is the case here in Kiel. This is a first in the world.”

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The positive feedback from the students is also a strong argument, she says and talks about an education specialist who has significant limitations when speaking. "In the course it was dead quiet, no playing around with smartphones or other disturbing noises could be heard. The education specialist captivated everyone with her excellent commitment as an expert on her own behalf.” Her impression is: “The students have a great deal of appreciation for our education specialists and their respective personal experience.”

And that doesn't just apply to the future teachers - management students or future police officers also obviously appreciate the experience of the specialists. Take the police, for example: Questioning witnesses or interrogating people of all kinds is part of everyday work. Sometimes there are people among them who behave "differently" without the inexperienced police officers involved being able to classify this immediately: attention and perception disorders, for example, which bring irritation to the questioning situation.

“Most have rarely come into contact with people with disabilities”

“During their training, the future police officers for the security or criminal service go through targeted training in questioning or interrogating people from special groups. This also includes people with physical or mental disabilities,” explains Michael Kock. The senior police director is the dean of the police department at the University of Applied Sciences for Administration and Services in Altenholz, Schleswig-Holstein. Every year, 250 students start the dual bachelor's degree in police services here.

One of the courses is always held by an education specialist from Kiel so that the future enforcers of law and order get an authentic impression of how a person with disabilities experiences everyday life and masters his life. Kock: “The young students are consistently impressed. Because most of them have not often come into contact with people with disabilities.”

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