By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
As the end of summer commercials from Staples says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” It’s when students of all ages are getting ready to head back to school. There will be the usual demands of getting the kids off to school, whether elementary, middle, high school, or even college. Attention will turn to getting supplies and resources ready for the students. Drivers will need to be mindful of school zones and school buses on the road. Thanks to recent developments in education delivery, some families will coordinate supports for remote learning from home. Parents will need to adjust their daily routines to accommodate Johnny or Jane getting to and from afterschool activities and set aside time for homework while balancing a stable home life for their children.
Another yearly event some parents and educators contend with is the “IEP,” an individual education plan for students of Ability. Remember, I like to say, “Do not ‘dis’ my Ability!” The IEP process is not a “one size fits all” concept. It sometimes requires support and advocacy from disability rights attorneys with a “special” focus on students from the disability community.
There will be an uptick in parents or guardians ensuring that their students with disabilities have barrier-free access to education in the least restrictive environment. This is the law codified under “IDEA,” or the Individuals with Disability Education Act.
However, school districts and their administrators sometimes argue that the best way to accommodate the academic enrichment of a student with a disability is to bus them to another school. The schools are sometimes over an hour away from their community, causing students to be segregated and extracted from the school and friends they have known for years. The school’s attempt to argue about stretched human and financial resources, in most instances, to kick the can of a student down the road and make it someone else’s problem.
People with one degree of separation from a student with a disability will undoubtedly understand this reference. Listen to the recent AccessAbility Works podcast interview with disability rights attorney Pat Radel if you don’t understand or doubt it happens every year. Pat’s practice focuses on the needs of students with disabilities. In the podcast, he attests to this phenomenon.
The Civil Rights Movement made clear that separate but equal segregation was wrong. To have the same system for students is a farce at best and illegal at worst. Education must be barrier-free, accessible, and available to people of all Abilities, Races, Genders, Orientations, and Faiths. Segregating students from one another or limiting their access and enjoyment of barrier-free access to a robust and meaningful education in the least restrictive environments is not conducive to learning. Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!
All students, regardless of Ability, Race, Gender, Orientation, or Faith, should be learning within the school districts that are in their respective communities. They should be educated in their towns and schools instead of being bused to another location due in part to the school’s refusal to deliver an education promised and protected under the laws of the United States.
I know a little about this subject. I am a former educator and school administrator. I was a Teaching Fellow in the third cohort of the New York City Teaching Fellows, a teacher, and an administrator before losing my eyesight. I taught kindergarten in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and served as the Executive Director/Principal of a Pre-K and afterschool program in the South Bronx, not too far from Arthur Avenue and Yankee Stadium.
Americans have been receiving a public education since our nation was born. Academic pursuits are protected under the law to ensure our future leaders are informed and educated in a manner that allows them not just to survive but thrive as citizens of our great nation. This also includes those of us who happen to have a disability.
Many school districts fight against accommodating the needs of students with disabilities or try to funnel them to “special schools.” Many times, they argue that a student with a disability should be around kids who are more like them. They sometimes say that it is easier to learn in environments where students have similar challenges. They might also try to make the logistical and economic argument to serve the kids in one place. They would be wrong.
The fact is that students with disabilities do not live in a world where everyone has a disability. Their families are not filled with people with disabilities. When they work, it is likely that most people with whom they will engage will not have a disability either. Doesn’t it make sense for them to learn and function in an environment that will more closely reflect life after graduation? Segregation did not work, does not work, and never will work. So, if segregation did not work for Race, Gender, Orientation, and Religion, it stands to reason it does not and never will work for students of Ability.
The evidence is clear. When students with disabilities are learning alongside their “temporarily able” peers, everyone wins. Holistic educational outcomes are usually better when students learn, socialize, and participate in schools that are smack dab in the communities where they live. Students with disabilities learn the same curriculum tailored to their Individual Education Plan (IEP), which would be the same goals regardless of where the student with a disability was bussed. So, if the goals for educating the student with a disability do not change regardless of location, shouldn’t we all work to ensure that students of Ability be schooled within the communities they have known all their lives, allowing for social supports and relationships to be built that are universally good for “temporarily able” and disabled students alike?
Allowing for integrated educational experiences for students of all abilities is a win/win for everyone in the academic community, regardless of the level of education. Diversity and true inclusion, including those of us with a disability, should reflect the mosaic that is our great nation. If our schools do not reflect different people of color, different genders, different orientations, and religions, what will students expect from society when they graduate and attempt to integrate and participate in a world that is not similar to their experience at a segregated school?
Bussing students with disabilities to another school or pulling them out of the classroom to put them in a resource room only serves to complicate academic enrichment and counters the way we include people with disabilities in society and our workforce.
When people with disabilities are not seen and heard from in our schools, they tend to be unseen and unheard in society and in work environments. Having students with disabilities in the classroom might sometimes make non-disabled kids uncomfortable, frustrated, or sad. Better to have them engage with those feelings sooner rather than later because the 1.4 billion people in the world with a disability will not simply disappear.
Just as likely, the experience might make students more empathetic, patient, and accepting of others, which might rub off on the teachers, administrators, and staff. Our world and our communities would greatly benefit from more authentic inclusion, acceptance, and appreciation of diversity, that is for sure.
Back when I went to school, things were quite different than they are today. I am sad to admit that the 1970s and 1980s are now considered to be “the olden days” to many. Anyway, back in the olden days, there were no laws like IDEA. Students of Ability were put into “special” schools, which, in retrospect, do not seem all that special when you think about it. They were technically institutionalized and segregated from their friends and peers.
I can count the number of kids with disabilities in my school on one hand. I do not recall any student with a disability in my elementary school, to be honest. Not until high school do I remember seeing people who were ‘dis’ labeled and considered disabled. I had friends who did go to the resource room, but I am not completely sure of the reasons. I did not consider them “special” in any way. They just needed a little more one-on-one support from teachers.
As an adult, I was disappointed to learn that the students who did go to the resource room were made to feel segregated from the others and thought the experience was anything but special. These friends said they felt degraded and embarrassed and added that their educational experiences as students who happened to have a disability were a waste of time.
The disabilities we are speaking about were rarely severe, nor did they involve multiple disabilities or require attention due to their fragile health conditions; they were kids who just learned differently. I learned at St. John’s University that educators need to bend their teaching abilities to the students’ abilities rather than expecting the students to bend to our teaching styles or abilities. All students can learn, and the best way to learn is amongst our peers and our friends who can support us and help guide us through the rough spots during our journey. The upside of having students of varying abilities learning together side-by-side outweigh any alleged cost.
The way to combat the arcane notion that kids with disabilities should not be in school learning with all the other kids is for you to get involved. Attend school board meetings and determine precisely how your district educates students with disabilities. Ask your superintendent and principal questions about mainstreaming. Advocate for the technology that makes learning easier for kids with disabilities.
If you want to brainstorm ideas on other ways to make this less of a problem, contact me at email@example.com.