Taz series inclusion (4): terribly nice people

Emma attends a normal elementary school. Everyone thinks the girl in the wheelchair is cute. She finds the pity shown to her terrible.

Everyone knows her – because of the wheelchair. Picture: dpa

The water is lukewarm, but Emma is shivering. Inch by inch, her foot slides forward, her hand clings to the railing. A red and white rope divides the non-swimmer pool into two sides. On one side, Emma pushes herself across the stone floor into the water; from the other, 32 children’s eyes watch her. Emma looks away.

Emma is eight years old. She has had spasticity since birth and can barely move her legs and left hand. "I’m like a chandelier with three lights missing," she says. She has a ponytail and a pink hair clip; she looks "cute." But you can’t tell Emma that. In first grade, there was a girl sitting next to her who felt sorry for her because of the wheelchair. Once the girl gave Emma a treasure chest, stroked her over the head and said, "You’re so cute." Emma thought it was terrible: "I’m not a doll!"

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been in effect in Germany since 2009, and since then journalists have often written about people like Emma. Using words she doesn’t quite understand yet: "empowerment," "participation," "inclusion." Terms that are supposed to describe the relationship of people with disabilities in society. Especially in the classroom: now every child formally has the right to attend a mainstream school. In Emma’s case, this means that she does not attend a special school, but rather the Mathilde von Mevissen elementary school in Cologne.

Emma’s parents did not find this decision difficult. Anna Becker, the mother, teaches at a special school herself. But she didn’t want special treatment for her daughter. "Emma will always be a wheelchair user among non-wheelchair users, why should it be any different at school?" she says. Emma’s classroom is on the first floor, she has many friends, a dedicated teacher. At first glance, everything seems perfect. But Emma often feels uncomfortable; and not just in the non-swimming pool.

How can children with and without disabilities learn together? How does a wheelchair user feel at a mainstream school? And: Can a blind person teach students? These are questions that the taz is exploring in a multi-part series on "Inclusion".

Everyone knows the little girl in the wheelchair

It takes Emma eighteen minutes to get from the swimming pool to school. Her route leads through narrow streets and along narrow sidewalks. Emma’s wheelchair with the pink flowers is small and maneuverable. It has to be, because that’s the only way she can avoid the bollards that cross her path. A man smiles at her. This often happens to Emma, strangers greet her, children wave at her. In first grade, she invited classmates to her birthday party whom she had never played with before. This makes Emma angry. "They don’t even know me," she says. But everyone knows who she is. Because of the wheelchair. Emma feels left out because everyone is so nice to her.

Politicians have been arguing about curricula and lowered curbs since the United Nations convention went into effect. But hardly anyone has dealt with Emma’s problem yet. Yet Emma’s feeling has a lot to do with the fact that scientists, politicians and journalists today prefer to say "inclusion" instead of "integration": people with disabilities should not only be involved, it should be a matter of course that they are there. Just like that.

Fourth period, art. Next to Emma is her school bag. Missing a pen, to look for it, she leans forward, contorts her legs. Two hearts stick to the knees of her jeans, they distort their shape. Emma’s wheelchair wobbles. Her teacher wants to run over, help her. But Emma doesn’t like that. When everyone thinks she needs help, "I wish myself into the ground," she says.

In kindergarten, when Emma was three, she noticed it for the first time. The kids looked at her funny, asked if they should practice walking with her. Only Paulina didn’t. She had sat down next to Emma, read a book with her. They didn’t talk about Emma’s legs until many months later. Today Paulina is Emma’s best friend.

It’s quiet in the schoolyard in a corner behind an iron gate. Emma calls this place her "cocoon"; it’s where she hides when she’s depressed. In second grade, she was once so sad that she wanted to switch to a special school. To the place where all children have a disability. Where she is not different, but normal. She decided against it after all. Because of Paulina and "because only children go there who no other school wants," says Emma.

Tip: Don’t just stroke

The German Knigge Council, a body that recommends rules of etiquette, has published ten tips on how to treat people with disabilities. They fit what Emma wants: don’t stare, don’t help too much, don’t just pet. Katja Luke was the main person who thought up the advice. She herself is also in a wheelchair and knows Emma’s problem well. "No one dares to think a wheelchair user is stupid, that’s also discrimination," she says. Something has to change not only in schools, but in people’s minds, she says. "The earlier we get to know disabled people, the more relaxed we become," says Luke.

Emma invited the girl who used to give her presents in first grade over to her house. "So she could see that I sleep in a normal bed and play with normal toys." The gifts became fewer after that, and today Emma no longer feels uncomfortable next to her. But it won’t be until no one stares while she pushes herself into the water that she will overcome the line that separates her from the others.