A Look at Adult Education and Other Fringe Areas with Peter Radtke

2003 was the European Year of People with Disabilities. The United Nations (which has a separate website for people with disabilities) has set up a working group to draft an International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What role should adult education play in this? How can people with disabilities be integrated? Dr Peter Radtke, born 1943, actor, writer, Secretary of the “Disability and Media Committee” and member of the National Council of Ethics worked in this field for many years. He suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta – brittle bone syndrome – and was head of department responsible for the “Programme for the Disabled” at Munich Volkshochschule from 1977 to 1984. He is interviewed by Dr Peter Brandt (DIE). We publish this paper by kind permission of “DIE Zeitschrift für Erwachsenenbildung”, the journal of the German Institute for Adult Education.

“Our Lives Are Invariably Some Form of Compromise”

DIE: For seven years you were responsible for work with people with disabilities at Munich Volkshochschule. What did you discover in that time?

Radtke: People don‘t differ fundamentally in their interests, whether they are disabled or not. Some need particular forms of assistance and support. I introduced cultural history tours, with the appropriate guidance and commentary. These programmes were not some kind of special education but “cultural visits” – with the emphasis on “culture”, not Sunday afternoon outings with care workers.

DIE: How did you manage to keep the care aspect to the minimum?

Radtke: We provided something for everyone. I think the main thing was that I demanded sacrifices also from disabled participants. They had to wait, for example, if the non-disabled wanted to look at a castle that was difficult to walk round. The visits had to be attractive to both sides, and were based on a shared interest in the topic. Our lives are invariably some form of compromise. We only had two permanent staff on each tour. Since there was a relatively large group of disabled tourists, this meant that the non-disabled participants, who had paid the same as the disabled, had to help out. And that worked well because there was enough interest on the cultural side. They did not get the impression at any point that they were there to look after a disabled tour group. As far as I was concerned, the cultural visits were completely normal.

DIE: Are people with disabilities a “target group”?

Radtke: I discovered that there needs to be special provision for those affected. In courses such as “English made gentle and easy” or “German made gentle and easy”, we always told the teachers to have regard primarily to the disabled students, although we kept the course open for non-disabled students, and there were always a few who enjoyed attending these courses because a “normal course” was too complicated or too fast for them for one reason or another. Aiming at something based on a shared interest always makes more sense than saying “Go along because that’s where the disabled are.”

DIE: What would you suggest to people planning provision today in a continuing education institution? Should they put the emphasis more on integration and abstain from special provision for the people with disabilities – in the hope that they will take part in other courses? Or is it better to create special provision for the target group “people with disabilities” – further sub-divided into a large number of smaller groups? That would again lead to segregation.

Radtke: I don’t think it should be turned into an ideology, since integration comes gradually. People unfamiliar with education first of all need a safe space in which to learn. Over the course of a year or eighteen months, however, it should be possible to break up this safe space and to make it into an integrated learning space. It is asking too much of many of those affected to force them to integrate straight away, although we should not of course lose sight of the goal of integrating people with disabilities into perfectly normal courses.

DIE: What distinguishes adult education from special education?

Radtke: Adult education has to offer a second chance, which special education cannot do in practice. This means that many people with disabilities,  particularly those who are restricted intellectually, only reach maturity and the ability to learn at an age when they are beyond school education. In this case, adult education is required to pass on knowledge which others have acquired earlier. My criticism of special education is that it often papers over unemployment among people with disabilities. If it is clear that someone is highly unlikely to be integrated into a normal job, an earlier start should be made on preparing him or her to use leisure time more productively. What usually happens is that subjects are taught which will be of no use later on. This, then, is a task for adult education: to prepare for things such as reading the newspaper, taking advantage of cultural activities, visiting museums – making sensible use of endless free time.

DIE: Adult educationists have been keen to embrace the notion of self-directed learning. This idea means abandoning the same subject-matter for all so that learners seek out what they want to learn for themselves. How do you view this development?

Radtke: I no longer follow this debate actively, but I can see that one very interesting issue arises: the more self-direction, the greater the chance to develop into an emancipated personality. People with disabilities are particularly heavily influenced by their surroundings, especially in terms of values. The values of the non-disabled are held up to them as worth striving for, although these can never be translated in their case into realisable goals. A “self-image” actually based on disability would therefore be a considerable emancipation.

DIE: So the notion of self-directed learning would to some extent be “disability-friendly”. But it should not be overlooked that it is often used for neoliberal ends. The propagation of self-directed learning sits well with the principle of taking responsibility for oneself: “You’re responsible for yourselves, so learn what you need to market yourselves!”

Radtke: For many that would be far too emancipated an approach. Especially if they have been in institutions, many will not have learnt to decide for themselves what to learn. And if we want to reach people with very little experience of education, we must also have regard to those with learning difficulties and the so-called mentally disabled.

DIE: …which would be a particular task for “educational counselling”.

Radtke: When we talk about educational counselling, we have to ensure that there are counsellors who know about the process that people have to go through. Self-learning can only be the outcome of a process. Saying yes to one’s own disability and to a life style necessarily resulting from that disability is one such process. I don’t know whether adult education always supports this 116 process in the right way. In many courses the false impression is still given that all people need to do is to “learn well, and you can easily melt into the world of the non-disabled”. Adult education needs to be more concerned with integrating disability into the personality. I cannot see many courses at Volkshochschulen nowadays like those of Ernst Klee in Frankfurt in the 1970s. They did aim at this kind of emancipation: not forcing those with disabilities into alien roles, but making them aware of their disabilities and releasing energies which could also lead to political action. The “Cripples’ Movement” grew out of these courses, although it may be right that this should have faded away today because there is now an entirely different social climate.

DIE: What “social climate” is there today?

Radtke: ...increased stress on performance, under the guise of a liberal attitude. The gulf that used to exist between those without and those with disabilities has shifted today. It now runs between those with disabilities who can be integrated and those who cannot. It has become possible to integrate many people with disabilities with the use of technical aids – computers and so on. The gap between them and those who lack intellectual or motor capacity has widened. The problem is that those who are able to express themselves automatically come to the fore in the public arena. However, if we take adult education as a whole, the emphasis ought in fact to be on those who cannot express themselves.

DIE: That may be a problem when there is greater stress on demand.

Radtke: The more exactly a group is specified, the smaller is the relevant clientele. This is doubtless a financial problem.

DIE: In this social climate, I can see two opposite trends: on the one hand, Section IX of the Social Security Code has been amended to encourage greater participation, and there is a debate in the United Nations about a Disabilities (Human Rights) Convention. And on the other hand is the bioethics argument.

Radtke: In crude terms the social consensus is that everything should be done to make life easier for those now alive. But at the same time we should prevent more people with disabilities coming into the world. Many of those involved do not see through this mechanism; they focus only on the improvements and achievements for those now alive and do not see that the danger lies elsewhere, in the right to life.

DIE: Is that a responsibility of adult education, to point this out?

Radtke: It is certainly a responsibility to raise awareness of the background. The disability movement is too concerned with Now and Me, and pays too little movement is too attention to the consequences for the next generation, for the people with disabilities who are not yet born. In all of these ethical issues, individual advantage comes up against the common weal. I am often asked whether I am against medical developments which relieve the sufferings of the individual. I reply that it is easy to say that people should be helped. But we have to consider the effects on society as a whole if certain things are forced through. Not to mention the fact that visionary research does not generally benefit those now living, even if it does the next generation.

DIE: Writing and acting have played an important role in your life. Do you see links with adult education?

Radtke: In my acting career in particular I have had a lot to do with adult education. One of the first courses which I introduced as head of department was drama, although I then took part in it rather than teaching it. This discovery of drama was crucial to the development of my personality, though I wouldn’t use the term therapy. Therapy regards art and culture solely as a means to an end. If you notice that what you do also has an effect on the public or the reader, then it is no longer something that only concerns you alone but also a third party. Naturally I would like there to be as many courses of that type as possible in adult education, but from the standpoint of art, culture 118 and creativity and less from that of therapy. People with disabilities in fact have a creativity that many non-disabled authors and composers actually long for and seek to acquire artificially. Take a book by someone with autism: the style of the language would come across as completely bogus if anyone else were to write it. Disability and art and culture hang very closely together. Perhaps it is wrong to speak of “disability” in the case of artists, but rather of creative phases. We know that among people who are mentally ill, their creative achievements are greatest when they are in crisis. It is then, when they are in greatest disability, that they are most creative.

DIE: When you say that it may be wrong to speak of “disability” in the case of artists, you are taking us into the argument about terminology. Is it proper to talk of the “disabled”, or is “people in need of assistance” more appropriate? We can make serious mistakes by using certain words, and cause offence. Have we found the golden mean between clear speech and political correctness?

Radtke: Let’s take the offensive word “cripple”. People in one section of the disability movement called themselves that and founded the “Cripples’ Saying “So long, Movement”. It therefore depends on who says see you” to a something. And then the context is important: blind person “Hallo, my old crock” suggests contempt, but it may actually mean “you’re a good-looking bloke”. I am very suspicious of political correctness because I believe that too much emphasis on terminology is essentially counter-productive. It’s a bit like a millipede, wondering which foot to put first. As soon as it does so, it loses self-confidence. If I need to start worrying about whether it’s right to say “So long, see you” to a blind person, then political correctness has only widened the gulf. I don’t mean that language is unimportant, I would merely like to make it a less sensitive issue. The right words do not necessarily lead to the right attitude. Of course there is much argument about the expressions used in the context of disabled people. But while there is a negative image attached to people with disabilities, you can call them anything positive that you like; sooner or later it will acquire negative connotations.

DIE: ...an example?

Radtke: I was at a conference in Athens, where British colleagues refused to speak of “people with disabilities” and talked about “disabled people”. About a fortnight later I took part in a radio broadcast in Austria. A listener called in and asked us not to use the term “behinderte Menschen” (disabled people) but “Menschen mit einer Behinderung” (people with a disability). In each case, the speakers regarded their own term as emancipatory. Instead of worrying over much about finding positive terms, we should try first of all to avoid clearly negative expressions.

DIE: Can you laugh at disabled jokes?

Radtke: To be perfectly honest, I can laugh myself silly at jokes about disabled people. Especially when the people concerned crack the jokes – very macabre and black. There’s a big difference between people sending themselves up and others doing it for them. But I know that some colleagues find it extremely offensive, so that one has to be careful. And because society is not yet free of prejudices against people with disabilities, such jokes can encourage those prejudices. It also makes a difference whether I make a joke like that in Britain or Scandinavia, or in Germany. It depends entirely on the atmosphere in which the joke is received. Where people with disabilities count as citizens with equal rights on their own account, there is less danger that jokes about them will be perceived as discriminatory.

DIE: In your present role as Secretary of the Disability and Media committee, you produce films and discuss with people, including those concerned, the roles and functions that people with disabilities are given in the media. What is the main issue for you?

Radtke: To many people, film, television, radio and the newspapers are the only channels through which they learn anything about the lives of people with disabilities. It is therefore all the more important to ask what is conveyed. In the last few decades we have in fact experienced an extraordinary transformation. Disability used to be either totally barred or shown negatively or as deserving of sympathy. Those directly affected are now often seen in the media. And fewer extreme images are presented – Batman or beggar. So there has been a change. When we sift through the media and assess them critically, we ask whether the examples shown reflect reality, present clichés or are required by the genre. People with mental disabilities often complain that the murderer in a crime film is usually a psychopath. The genre calls for a cliché and does not necessarily tell us anything about reality. We need to contrast clichés with the everyday lives of those concerned.

DIE: Does your committee take part in the discussion about media in education?

Radtke: We spend far too little time looking at theoretical questions. But then, media experts still devote “The genre calls too little attention to the topic. And if it is raised, this for a cliché” is usually by sociologists or those working in special education. We are trying to bridge that gap. /p>

DIE: Thank you for talking to us.