The world-wide commitment of Waldorf education to help handicapped children works out of the knowledge that being handicapped can only be understood as a spiritual question. An encounter with a handicapped child can provoke the heartfelt question, what is the value of such a life? Everybody can recognise in themselves tendencies to one-sidedness and the lack of particular abilities which limit us in our lives. The experience of our own inadequacies can lead us to feel what it is like to need help and what effort is required to overcome such difficulties. The inner energy needed to overcome such weaknesses is often greater than the actual problem itself. From this point of view every biography that involves individual development is meaningful. The forces we need to bear or even overcome handicaps belong to our souls. Curative education works to strengthen and support these soul forces so that a healing development can occur.
Waldorf education is not only applicable to healthy children but also has much to offer children with special needs. During different periods of history, we can register a formidable scale of different reactions to the challenge these individual human beings present. It ranges from being abandoned on bare hillsides, marooned on desert islands or sent off on "Ships of Fools" to being regarded as objects of scientific investigation, quite losing sight of the fact that they are individuals just like you or me. In more recent times, there have been conscious efforts to relinquish this tendency to create a certain amount of distance. Various efforts are made to achieve social integration. Almost immediately, however, the quandary arises that normalisation is neither possible in every case nor even the best course to take for those who are themselves concerned.
As early as 1924, Rudolf Steiner gave the problem of working with the handicapped a new aspect, which went far beyond giving a new name to an existing task. This name contains elements which give impulses to our time and, indeed, to the future. He substituted the term "handicapped children" by that of "children in need of special care". Thus, a definition of the child's defects and disabilities is replaced by a statements of his or her needs: It is the soul itself that needs to be cared for. The defect of the body is not to be replaced by an illusory "wholeness". By means of the very consideration of the character of the defect as a symptom, that is by means of diagnosis, therapeutic intuition is given a chance to work.
It has often been experienced that it is not the spirit or the mind that is "handicapped", even if conditions are exceedingly difficult. It is the body at the individual's disposal which does not permit the person to communicate with the rest of society in the usual way or to participate in it harmoniously. Curative education springing from anthroposophy regards an inner dialogue with the individuals placed in its care to be the task in hand. In this dialogue, handicaps can be overcome by mutual effort to a certain degree. Health is not a permanent state. It is a precarious balance that has to be continually regained both on the level of the body and that of the soul. Therefore, the efforts of curative education are closely allied to medicine.
Curative education and social therapy are practised in over 320 institutions in 24 countries. Great store is set by therapeutic co-operation between the curative educators, the child and his or her parents. Love and attention in the family and in school as well as in numerous forms of individual therapy are consciously regarded as therapeutic elements. In addition, the community itself is experienced as a health-giving element, the rhythms of the day, the week, the year, as observed in such communities stabilise the inner and outer lives of individuals who find it difficult to function in space and time. The art of education can in itself have healing effects. It is to this holistic aspect to which children and young people in need of special care are especially open.