I never wanted to be a special education advocate. It's really something I had never even considered in my life. I said something about this to one of my child's therapists the other day, that I was apparently becoming a special needs advocate, and she said "Lisa, you became a special needs advocate the day he was born".
These last few years have been an education. A crash course. I've learned more by having this child than I learned in all of college, and perhaps even more than in all of my other life experience since then. I have become somewhat of an expert on special education, because I have to be.
I'm emotional and scared and fired up about the cabinet nominee confirmation hearings. I am afraid of what is going to happen to my children's future if some of the things these people are promising come true. I am speaking up and speaking out more and more because I think it's well past time. Too many of us have been too quiet for too long. And now here we are.
So I guess I'm a special needs advocate.
In response to a post on my Facebook page the other day, about the Secretary of Education nominee and her seemingly non-existent knowledge of special education law, I got a comment with what I think are probably some common beliefs and misconceptions. I replied to it there, but I felt like the reply I wrote deserved to not be buried in a comment to a comment.
We need to keep this dialogue open. Those of us in the trenches of this need to keep answering questions openly, keep educating those around us. It's our duty to our children, and their children, to foster as much understanding about this as possible.
The relevant part of the comment:
... here's what I have never understood; whose best interests are really being served by mainstreaming special needs kids into the general public school situation? The child is absolutely not receiving fully integrated education for their specific needs or by specifically trained educators. They're being offered sporadic resources and a full school day in the hands of a teacher who is credentialed for standard academics. He or she cannot possibly offer the special needs kid all that they need and deserve as they do not have the training and or the time. There are typically 25 or more other kids in the class that deserve attention and education as well. In my opinion, it is impossible to do both . Either the special needs kiddo will suffer ir the mainstream kids are going to lose out. It is asking far too much of the teachers and creating a situation where at least some of the students will suffer as a result-including the special needs child. Fed funding should be utilized to provide an environment strictly for those kids so that they can be offered all of what they need and deserve from educators trained specifically for that purpose. This was the way it was when my girls were little. I truly don't understand the reasoning or benefit to the current policy. Can you enlighten me?
(I will pause here for a moment and note that I am not a trained educator, or administrator, or a lawyer, or a researcher, or anything super important like that. I'm a former big software advertising manager with an economics degree who now stays home with four kids, spends her spare time combing over IEPs with a highlighter and red sharpie, drives a minivan full of Cheez-Its between school and dance and therapy appointments, and does 6,000 loads of laundry a day, all while begging people to please just eat their goddam breakfast so we aren't late for school... again. My opinions below are just that - my opinions. I believe they are relatively well informed opinions, but they are still just my very own opinions.)
My response to these comments and questions (edited a bit for clarity and emphasis, and expanded on a few points a bit, because I'm vain like that, and Facebook doesn't let you add emphasis to your text)...
All students best interests are being served. And all of a community and society's best interests.
First of all, because segregating children in schools teaches all of them from a very young age that there is a difference between "us" vs. "them", and that "us" and "them" should be kept separate. "They" should be in separate classrooms. "They" are taking attention away from the "normal" kids in class. It is the beginning of the slippery slope to systemic discrimination, teaching very young children that maintaining separation and boundaries between people who are different from you is and should be normal. We already have way too much of this kind of discrimination in this country, but I am hopeful that my children's generation can be the ones that change this, because they are learning every day that different is normal, and different is beautiful, and different is to be valued.
This matters now more than ever. We have so many divisions in this country. So many issues and groups and hateful people trying to drive us apart. It is critical, absolutely critical, that our children learn acceptance and understanding and the value of uniqueness - and that they learn that separating "them" - whatever kind of the "them" they might be - is not ok.
Beyond the hopefully obvious discrimination issue, there is so much more benefit.
To respond specifically to your point about the disabled child not receiving fully integrated education for their needs or by trained educators - that is absolutely not true. And that is the exact point of the IDEA law - to ensure that the disabled child receives the support they need in order to access the same education as everyone else. My child is absolutely not receiving sporadic support - a great deal of time is spent figuring out what parts of the day he needs direct skilled support, and he receives the support he needs when he needs. Again a key reason for the IDEA law - to ensure that this happens.
(I will interject here that, yes, I KNOW that the special education systems aren't working perfectly, that they are even badly broken in places. But I also know that a lot of really good people are doing their very best.)
Now, as for the bigger picture...
Disabled children and non disabled children actually learn better and get a better and more balanced education in an inclusive educational environment. I might even argue that in many cases the non disabled children benefit even more...
They learn compassion. They learn about different learning styles. They have the opportunity to see that all learners are not the same. They have opportunities to be mentors and partners. They have the opportunity to learn how to help and support members of their school community - which will in turn lead them to be better members of their communities as adults (traits which we desperately need in our country). When special organizational or behavioral supports are put in place in a classroom for a child with special needs, all children benefit from the added care and structure.
I hear often from parents of other kids in my son's class how about happy they are to have him in their child's class - that his presence is teaching them so much, and it opens up opportunities for conversations at home about his disability, and what it means, and how they can help him, and how much they love him.
Teachers BENEFIT from being required to have the skills to teach across a broad range of learning styles. They become better teachers. And having better teachers benefits all students.
School resources are used more efficiently - rather than having totally separate classrooms and separate full time staff, those resources are incorporated into all the classrooms for all students to benefit from.
My child benefits because he is getting access to the exact same education that every other child has access to, and he gets the additional help and support he needs in order to access that education - rather than being stuck in a special ed classroom where the curriculum is modified for the lowest common denominator.
Honestly I could go on, and on, and on about this.
....And I totally will if you pour me a glass of wine and start asking me questions.