Inclusive Schools Week

Last week was Inclusive Schools Week for San Francisco and across the nation to highlight the progress that schools have made in providing education for a diverse population, including those with Intellectual Disabilities.  On Tuesday, I went to a seminar hosted by Support For Families in support of San Francisco’s Unified School District.  The seminar was to discuss both the past, present and future of Inclusive Education…

The Past:  At the end of the day, the schools really have come a long way.  From the 60’s when most individuals with disabilities were placed in homes and institutions to children with autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy being accepted and allowed in a typical classroom.

As I listened to different parents talk on the panel about the fight they fought to get an education for their child, all I can ever think is that I hope I am someday as dedicated as these parents.  It is consistently hearing the word “No” with one door after another being shut and finding another avenue that will work.

The Present:  Currently there are lots of schools that have adopted the Inclusive Education Policy.  Many of the kids I work with in my programs go to a typical school and are well-supported by the teachers, kids and other parents.  There are still TONS of schools that have not yet adopted the policy though and many who have but do not have the support network to make it successful.

The Future:  The hope is that in the future, a parent will have a choice or option as to where to send their kids with intellectual disabilities to school.  Currently it works out that about one school in each district accepts kids with disabilities and then a parent has to sort out whether they have the proper support and this is assuming they even have room for their child.

For eleven years, the Inclusive Fitness Policy has been pretty much the same.  The same discussions and arguments that were held 11 years ago are still being discussed and argued today.  It is a tough topic.  One that almost everyone I talk to has a slightly different opinion on.  Below are a few of the arguments out there:

-How is a teacher suppose to educate a child with intellectual disabilities, the future Yale student and everyone in-between?

-A  school agrees to offer Inclusive Education but does it really matter if they don’t provide a program that supports their staff (ie…train teachers to work with kids with disabilities, have aides available, etc)

-What really is the better option?  A non-public school that provides specific programming for your child with autism or other related disabilities and has well-trained staff; a public school where they may not have staff that is as familiar working with such a population but the kids are then surrounded by other ‘typical’ students and can learn from each other; or home-schooling where the parent can specifically address individual needs and a child is not distracted from outside sources?

As I listened to parents and teachers debate their perspectives, I had a few thoughts of my own;

1) To the parents who are arguing and debating about specific areas, such as reading comprehension, that they feel their child is falling behind in and feel as though the school is not supporting them in their fight to improve all areas of their child’s education…

I don’t want to say I understand your fight because I am not a parent and don’t know what it’s like to raise a child with intellectual disabilities, but I have worked with a lot of special need kids who have been in a variety of education systems.  I honestly feel the best programs and best parents are the ones who have focused on the abilities of their kids instead of focusing all their time on improving heir weaknesses.  This is not to say not to address both their strengths and weaknesses but the main focus should definitely be on their strengths.

Take Jeremy, for example, who is 25 with Down Syndrome.  While he may never master basic math skills such as adding and subtracting, he has a job at Starbucks, does public speaking for a variety of events and goes to the College of Adaptive Arts where he truly feels like he is an actor!  His parents saw his abilities, expanded on them and Jeremy is now one very confident, successful and perfectly able young adult.

2) I heard many parents talk about how their child with special needs fits in great with kids 1-2 years younger than themself and has an easier time making friends with these kids.  Our society and school system is driven by the social norm:  you must talk by a certain age, enter school at a certain age, etc.  But why not group kids by abilities rather than age?  If your kids with special needs are academically 1-2 years behind, would they benefit more from being in a class with kids a year or two younger rather than constantly feeling left behind?

It’s a controversial topic with a wide variety of opinions but one thing is consistent amongst all advocates out there:  the current policies and system of Inclusive Education need to be expanded on and more training for the schools and teachers providing this type of education is a must.  Hopefully in eleven more years the current trends and policies are a tradition of the past.

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