I sat in on a meeting as a Parent Member of the Committee on Special Education (CSE) with the shared responsibility of making decisions pertaining to the education of a child in my town. For privacy reasons, I’m NOT going to share anything specific about that meeting or that child but I am going to share an AHA! moment that knocked me upside the head during the opening remarks of the meeting and was then revisited and reinforced throughout the meeting… FOR ME. I’m not sure that the other committee members saw the light bulb glowing over my head. You see, my role in the committee is slightly different from the other members. Everyone else is there to report on the child’s progress and services. I am there because, to some degree, I walk in the shoes of the child’s parents… but (perhaps) can listen and respond less emotionally because we’re not deciding the future of my child. In this role, I can ask questions or make suggestions that the parents may not have thought of. In theory, it’s not personal. In reality, whoever said that wasn’t a parent of a child with special needs… (LOL) IT IS ALWAYS PERSONAL!
For the record, EVERYTHING I do that involves children with special needs is personal. I have 2 children with special needs. Every piece of information I gather and apply either to my own children or to another parent’s child is done to make their world a better place. And the more parents of children with special needs I can help navigate the world of special education in our district and state (in whatever way I can), the better off their children — and therefore my children — will be in our schools, community and world. So it is, in fact, very personal!
My AHA! Moment? The Dad mentioned that he’d had the good fortune to attend a particular school known for naturally integrating the local children with special needs in with the general population in their schools and community. He found the experience extraordinary. Recalling that even the most unlikely “typical” student was automatically and outright helpful to the children with special needs. Everyone benefited.
To which I responded in agreement…
Now that’s REAL INCLUSION!
I’ve always considered myself a REAL inclusionist! My life has always been intertwined with children/people with special needs. As a second-grader, my dear friend, Alex, was wheelchair-bound due to Cerebral Palsy. I played constantly with him and his little brother, Vinny, who had a learning disability. Most of my childhood was spent on the “dead end” street around the corner with my life-long friends, Alison and Kelley, whose Aunt Carole had special needs and often joined in our tea parties. And, Uncle Stevie lived with my cousins and spent countless hours playing Cowboys and Indians with us. At 15, one of my most enjoyable “baby”-sitting gigs was being a companion to Johnny, a brilliant teen aged boy who happened to have been severely physically affected by Cerebral Palsy (but unaffected cognitively). I can go on with examples of people with special needs being really included in my life, throughout my life. Seems I’ve always been naturally enmeshed with people who were differently abled than I. It was natural for me then, to expect that this is how the world is — integrated — with people with special needs fully INCLUDED in all areas of life. Then I had my own children with special needs — my identical twin sons who happened to have been born with Down syndrome! I have known from the start what I wanted for them… The research shows that full-inclusion in all aspects of life — school, community, workforce etc. — produces the best, most successful outcomes socially/emotionally and academically… spawning the greatest level of independence possible. As such, I’ve consistently followed the inclusionist path and the inclusionist advocates’ and experts’ advice and mindset. That said, I’m not sure why this particular meeting’s underlying inclusion theme shook me down to the very foundation of my soul. I guess it pushed the concept of REAL INCLUSION right in my face… a little boy who needs, yearns for, and thrives on being included in his school and community… BUT WAS NOT QUITE THERE and he knew it because of the way the school district does “inclusion”!
The Boys marching in their Thanksgiving Parade at their integrated Preschool. Not quite full inclusion but they are being educated side-by-side with some of their typical peers.
A child who recognizes that he attends a different school than his siblings because he’s “different”; A child whose friendships don’t include the kids who live next door or around the corner because they go to the neighborhood school and she doesn’t; A child who rides a different bus… the “short” bus; or goes to a separate “special” class where all the children have disabilities — usually in a far wing of the school — is NOT INCLUDED! They are being segregated. And the process of segregation and the thinking behind it is pervasive. Someone at my own CPSE meeting actually said TO ME [when erroneously trying to sell me on the self-contained class they recommended for my boys], “It’s so cute, they go down to the cafeteria at lunch time and eat with the REGULAR KIDS!” (I’m sure you can imagine my reaction!) Maybe they LET your child participate in Art or Music class with the general population. Maybe they mainstream (different from inclusion) for story time only and then send the child with special needs back to his/her segregated class. This thinking, these practices are why New York state continues to lag behind 48 other states in our nation that are implementing the inclusion laws. Why NY continues to separate people with disabilities from those without despite the laws that require them to do otherwise. This is NOT inclusion, it’s discrimination!
Just because Johnny or Jane learns differently from Tommy or Tess doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be or can’t be in the same classroom. As a corporate executive, I was responsible for understanding the individual learning styles of each of my employees and using that style to facilitate their career path and growth within my department, employed by our same company, living and operating together in our shared world. INCLUDED regardless of their learning style. Why should it be any different for a child in school? I didn’t fire all the visual learners because they didn’t listen to me or catch on during trainings. I bought them books so they could learn their way what they needed to learn to do their jobs well. I didn’t sit my employees who learned by watching in the corner with a book. I assigned mentors (read: peers) to show them how to do it, to facilitate their learning. I provided individualized support for each person according to their learning style! In my 20-year career as a database marketing executive, I managed to teach and forward the careers of every employee I ever had. Never terminating a single employee.
The Federal Least Restrictive Environment Law was developed to accommodate inclusion whenever and wherever possible. The law states (my accurate paraphrasing) that a child with special needs should be educated side-by-side with his/her typically developing peers in the least restrictive environment where he/she can make academic progress with appropriate supports in place. The law exists because the research supports INCLUSION as the best practice in educating children with special needs. The best outcomes are reported when children with special needs are fully included. The problem is that school districts are left to interpret the law, to determine what level of support is appropriate which, unfortunately, becomes a matter of convenience (easier to place them in the existing special needs class than to put together an individual support-infrastructure in the general education setting) and budget (schools receive funding for each child placed in a “special” class supporting on-going segregation) versus what is BEST for the child. Their interpretation continues to support the antiquated infrastructure and segregated thinking ignoring the research that supports the inclusion laws!
INCLUSION IS A BEST PRACTICE! INCLUSION RESULTS IN THE BEST OUTCOMES FOR OUR CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS. INCLUSION IS THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE THAT WAS MEANT TO BE IMPLEMENTED TODAY! Is your school district practicing inclusion according to the Federal laws?