This post is not about parking spaces (sorry to disappoint). It’s about education, and also adult social life.
Under IDEA, mainstreaming of disabled students in regular education classrooms is seen as the goal of special education. As much as possible, students are to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment. (The least restrictive is a general education classroom, followed by a mixed or inclusion classroom, followed by a “self-contained” classroom in which all the students are disabled.) Similarly, organizations that work with disabled adults at least pay lip service to the notion of including them in community life as much as possible.
Regardless of practical shortcomings, the goal of inclusion is obviously a HUGE step forward from where we were only decades ago, when disabled people were placed in crappy institutions, often denied an education, and in other ways automatically segregated from mainstream life. And the risk of going back to that is frighteningly real. There is plenty of push-back right now from people who would like to see disabled students out of regular classrooms (for example this Alabama board of education member or our current attorney general); and cuts to Medicaid services like home nursing, which allow disabled people to live at home and in their communities, could potentially force many into institutions.
So before I go further, let’s get one thing straight: Inclusion in one’s nondisabled communities is a human and civil right for disabled people of all ages. PERIOD.
Now that that’s clear … I have some problems with inclusion as it’s currently conceptualized.
First of all, I don’t think the language of “restrictiveness” is a helpful or accurate way of looking at different educational placements. I understand where it came from historically, but I think we can do better. Instead of talking about a classroom of disabled students as a place where they are restricted or restrained, why not speak of it in terms of support and environmental modification?
The preschool Monkey attends is described on the district website as “the most restrictive” option for his age group. That’s because the majority of students who attend have IEPs. In Monkey’s class, there are slightly more kids with IEPs than typical peers. All the students are taught by a special education teacher and aide.
I really have no idea what is “restrictive” about any of this. Class size is smaller than the equivalent Head Start classrooms, meaning it’s quieter and the kids get more one-on-one attention. The school facility is quite nice, with big outdoor and indoor play areas and lots of fun sensory toys. There’s a full-time nurse just down the hall with his medications on hand, and individual and group therapies taking place in the classroom or OT/PT gym. I don’t see any of this as restricting Monkey’s freedom or ability, but the opposite: it’s supporting those things. (He loves it, by the way.) So why don’t we call it “the most supportive environment” or “the most accommodating environment”? Does that not sound negative enough?
I’m not advocating for euphemisms here. I’m just wondering how, for example, self-contained classrooms might look different if we conceptualized them in terms of “most accommodating” instead of “most restrictive”. Providing the necessary amount of accommodation for an individual student – not restricting them in some way – is what a self-contained classroom should be for. It should be for students whose needs can’t be accommodated in regular classrooms. If a student can function and learn with accommodations in a regular classroom, then they should do that. They should learn in “the least accommodating environment”! Hahahaha. (Seriously, though, I went through mainstream public school and “least accommodating environment” is a pretty good way of describing it.)
Recently, I took Monkey to the “sensory-friendly” time at a children’s museum. He enjoyed it and I did as well. There weren’t many people, they did something to the lighting to make it less annoying and there were little soothing “sensory break rooms” you could creep off to. Monkey was able to borrow noise-reducing headphones, which helped with all the white noise from the exhibits and from people walking and talking in echoey hallways. (I seriously considered borrowing a pair myself. Next time.) And all the other families had autistic members or a related disability, so we didn’t get any weird looks or feel out of place at all. It was awesome.
(But maybe I should say “restrictive” instead of “awesome”? I mean, the whole environment was modified to accommodate disabled people and the people there were either disabled or supporting a disabled person, so really … restrictive.)
What I’m trying to get at is that there are often ableist assumptions in the way we talk about inclusion. Aside from the “restrictive” language, a situation can be created where a person thinks “Hurray! I’m almost normal. I get to be with normal people.” I suspect this is especially an issue when the disability is developmental, intellectual or psychiatric, as opposed to a physical disability. If you hang out with developmentally disabled people, you can see this internalized ableism in the way they compare themselves to other, “more disabled” people in their own class or group home or community center. The hierarchy of “less disabled”/”more normal”=better is imported into the disabled community.
But if we’re not allowed to have a disabled community, a positive disabled identity, then we’re stuck with – at best – the almost belonging of being the not-too-disabled person in a room full of typical people. Which is why, while exposure to and interaction with nondisabled peers is important (after all, there are more of them, and they’re always going to be around, and some of them are even pretty cool), I think we should also encourage the formation of disabled groups and spaces, where disabled children can feel a sense of safety, pride, ownership and unequivocal belonging, where they are not the odd ones out. Ideally this would include teens and adults with disabilities, as well as younger children. And then, once this space and this community is established, there is the potential for reverse inclusion: bringing nondisabled/neurotypical peers into the disabled setting.
I’ve been in reverse inclusion settings, where I’ve been in the “normal” minority. I toured a living history museum with a group of students from the local Deaf school. I’ve been to a dance that was for adults with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and related disabilities (most fun dance I’ve ever been to) and other similar events. In high school I sometimes would hang out with a friend of mine and her boyfriend who were both intellectually disabled; that was an informal instance of reverse inclusion. Let me tell you: your mindset shifts when you’re the minority; when you’re not the one including them, rather they are including you.
Imagine this: what if parents wanted their typical children to get a spot in their neighborhood school’s autism classroom because it was just so great? “It’s small, the teacher’s wonderfully patient, the students all get individual attention, they have lots of hands-on learning. Oh and you should see all the cool OT equipment! I sure hope Maria gets into the reverse inclusion program!” Wouldn’t that change the way we all think about special education and disability?
I have more thoughts on this subject but I’d better stop for now. I’ll end with a quote from Ian Brown’s beautiful book The Boy in the Moon. Brown’s son, Walker, had CFC with very significant intellectual disability. The first half (roughly) of the book is memoir. The second half is really a philosophical exploration of disability, especially developmental and intellectual disability. In his attempt to understand Walker and to get inside his world, as well as to find the best residential placement for him, Brown went to France to stay in a community for disabled people called L’Arche. He also visited a similar community in Canada. Towards the end of the book, he writes:
“These days, I have a fantasy of my own. In my fantasy, Walker and people like him live in a L’Arche-like community with the help of assistants. It’s a beautiful place, in a beautiful spot, with a view of the sea of the mountains, because for once, in this place, it isn’t just those who can afford them who have access to the best views, but people who might need beauty even more, because they live with so much less. In my fantasy, this village is owned and inhabited by the disabled, on their schedule, at their pace, according to their standards of what is successful […]. In my fantasy, it is the rest of us, the normals, who have to be ‘integrated’ into their society, who have to adapt to their pace and their place.” (271)
I share that fantasy.