Photo/Illutration Parents of disabled children speak at a news conference in Osaka on Oct. 31 after filing for redress with the Osaka Bar Association over the education ministry’s April policy guidance. (Rie Kowaka)

OSAKA--A group of parents of schoolchildren with disabilities is seeking legal redress over the education ministry’s new classroom policy, calling it “discrimination” against disabled children.

The new policy significantly claws back the amount of time students with disabilities can spend in normal classroom activities interacting with the other students, they said.

The group, consisting of 13 parents and their disabled children, filed for relief at the Osaka Bar Association on Oct. 31 over what they say is a human rights violation by the ministry.

“Segregating and isolating children with disabilities constitutes discrimination against them and violates their human rights,” said one of the parents in the group.

Under Japan’s education system, disabled children can attend regular schools with students without disabilities. Students with disabilities can learn some subjects in special needs classes separately from other children, depending on their progress in learning, with the amount of time varying from one child to the next.

But in the new policy, issued in April, the ministry calls on students taking lessons in special needs classes to increase their time in these classes.

It dictates that children requiring special needs will now have to spend at least half their time at school attending special needs classes.

That means they will be deprived of opportunities to interact with children without disabilities and learn together, the parents said.

Municipalities in Osaka Prefecture, including Hirakata and Higashi-Osaka, have set their guidelines in line with the ministry’s revised policy.

Parents of disabled schoolchildren blasted the step as a breach of the children’s human rights and, in a statement submitted to the bar association, called for the ministry to retract its policy.

They also urged the Hirakata and Higashi-Osaka municipal boards of education to drop their guidelines for how many special needs classes should be taken.

A mother in Hirakata who has a child with Down syndrome said at a news conference on Oct. 31 that she was “extremely saddened” by the ministry’s direction.

“If my son has to spend more than half of his time at school (in special needs classes), he will feel uncomfortable and unwelcome when taking regular classes,” she said.

The mother said her son, who goes to a regular school, attends special needs classes for only about an hour or two daily, and that he typically spends the rest of his time at school just doing what the other students do, including taking turns serving school lunches for his classmates.

“My son can learn plenty of things beyond schoolwork, such as social behavior and how to communicate with others, by being with his peers as a member of his class,” she said.

Another mother in Higashi-Osaka told the news conference that the Higashi-Osaka city government will also shift to reduce the number of regular classes disabled children can attend starting next fiscal year.

She said her daughter with Down syndrome studies in regular classes most of the time, but the policy change will affect her disposition.

“Her homeroom teacher and other teachers have paid full attention to her to respond to her needs,” the mother said. “But my daughter may no longer feel comfortable asking for help, even when she is in trouble.”

In September, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recommended that the Japanese government abolish its special needs education program that segregates disabled children from other children.

The committee also called on the education ministry to cancel its April direction.

Tomoko Hashimoto, a lawyer representing the parents, said the central government should do more for the well-being of disabled children, referring to people’s constitutional right to education.

“The state is obliged to exhaust policy measures to ensure that children requiring special needs can live fuller lives,” she said.