The Gospel of Inclusion is being preached pretty heavily in my school district right now, and its constant message is that children with disabilities flourish when exposed to children without disabilities.
I should be a member of the choir, shouting Amen! to that line of thinking, since I campaigned hard for my daughter to be mainstreamed years ago, long before the district had converted.
But as I've watched, through the years, the way being with children without disabilities has felt for my daughter, and the way being with children with disabilities has felt for my son in self-contained, I have to wonder: Why do people imbue typically functioning kids with such magical powers? Mainstream students exhibit plenty of behaviors I'd be horrified to have my kids adopt. (Watch a group of fifth-grade girls cutting a friend from the herd, or a bully working the playground, and you'll know what I mean.) Kids are kids, not benevolent off-rubbing role models.
So what are we saying, then, when we declare, full of beneficence, that children with disabilities belong in the enchanted and life-enhancing company of their typical peers? Essentially, that letting children with special needs be with children like themselves is death to them. Whatever they'll learn from "regular kids" is bound to be better than what they'll learn from each other, gah!
Some empowering message that is.
And I have a close-up view of what that message does. My daughter has done decently in mainstream classes. She keeps up well enough. But socially, sometimes, I feel like she's a traveler without a country. Her mainstream classmates are friendly, which is, importantly, not the same thing as friends. At the same time, though, trying to fit in has made her unsympathetic to children with more noticeable disabilities. She's disengaged from her former self-contained buddies, but found no one to replace them.
So when I look at my son's self-contained class, it's hard to see it as the "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" horror it's supposed to be. He has friends. He has a teacher who is working with students with disabilities on purpose, and not because of state mandate. He has a safe environment where he is understood and accepted, and his differences are part of him but not all of him. He is involved with his classmates and enjoys their routine; his teacher says he's like the mayor of their classroom.
I don't believe that dropping him into a roomful of typically developing peers would magically turn my spirited little frog into a prince. I wouldn't want it to. I do think, though, that it would rob him of his feeling of having a place in the world, a people. And I'm certain that his educational curriculum would turn from actually teaching him things at his particular pace and ability, to teaching him to act more "normal" in a community of unsupportive peers. The mainstream can be a pretty restrictive environment, too.
Making kids with disabilities part of the wider community is a wonderful, necessary thing. But there are all sorts of ways to do it. Being in a self-contained class in our neighborhood school has been a nice compromise situation for my son, allowing him to be aware of but not obsessed with students outside his class. Increasing the inclusiveness of clubs and teams would be a nice gesture for a lot of schools, who seem to feel their obligation toward mainstreaming ends with the final bell. Kids should have the opportunity to both be involved in the life of their school and retreat from it as appropriate.
Educational theories tend to work in absolutes, and we've gone from saying that kids with disabilities must all be placed together to saying that they must not be. But any system that sets rules without considering the needs and strengths of the individual is discriminatory, whether it seeks to exclude or forcibly include. "Individualized" is right there in the name of the document that outlines special education programs. That should be clue enough that it's their differences that make kids magical, not their degree of typical-ness.
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