A non-verbal 7-year-old child with Down Syndrome, signs of trauma, and an ADHD diagnosis is separated from his second-grade peers. Orders are barked at him in his segregated classroom with the expectation of compliance. Worksheets are the primary tool of teaching, and not one adult in his life has a vision for his future other than institutionalism.
An entire second-grade class spends the first three days of school learning expectations and rules while also anticipating a new friend coming the following week to morning meeting time. The teacher leads a discussion about diversity and children with exceptionalities, prompting the students to brainstorm ways to make their classroom more welcoming for their friend. Plans are made for seating and ice breaker games in which their new friend can most fully participate. Students are empowered to take ownership in welcoming their friend in PE, music, recess, art, and library time. They decide upon ways to alert the teacher if their friend becomes aggressive or runs away, and even discuss the dream of a therapy dog visiting.
Special Education has made tremendous strides over the past several decades. And now inclusion is on the rise—for the benefit of all involved. This inclusion is significant when considering only forty-five years ago the majority of students with disabilities were excluded from public education. In fact, most states used institutions which kept children with disabilities out of mainstream society. The popular assumption seemed to be such students were unable to learn, had little to no capabilities, and, in a society in which worth is often based on production, had little value to add.
Society began to shift, however, in 1975 with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The Act acknowledged the need for students with exceptionalities to receive a quality education in “the least restrictive environment” possible. This meant the students were being seen by the government as full citizens of the United States, which quickly turned into a higher quality of life for children with exceptionalities and their families.
In addition, students with exceptionalities were becoming the norm in schools, no longer separated from their peers. Can you imagine the delight of a wheelchair-bound first grader joining in tetherball with her friends? Not to mention the growth in understanding, empathy, and inclusion learned by the able-bodied kiddos?
In 1986 an amendment was passed which allotted finances for early intervention with preschoolers. These screenings and family support for children younger than five have saved state and national governments financially by diagnosing challenges early. No longer does a family have to wait until kindergarten to receive professional support for a child on the autism spectrum or resources to repair and prevent future injury through physical therapy. Nor do professionals have a sky-high bill attached to their services. Families are allowed to receive the help needed for their children to be set up for school success.
By the 1990s, the All Handicapped Children Act was reauthorized as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), with an amendment which fostered greater inclusion for students into mainstream school, along with more research and support for students transitioning from high school to their futures. This was significant for citizens with disabilities as it focused on entire-life outcomes, not simply birth to age eighteen. Now a student with Downs Syndrome, for example, can not only receive his diploma, but also be encouraged to apply for continuing education or a dignified job.
In 1997 more amendments were made to IDEA incorporating greater access to the general education curriculum. This was a noteworthy stride for advocates of special education, as the bar of expectations had been raised. No longer are students with exceptionalities going to avoid being challenged academically. Now they are to engage to the highest level possible with their peers.
Also in the 1990s, the Assistive Technology Act was passed, ensuring students with exceptionalities are given the opportunity to utilize necessary technology to help them succeed. This can be anything from classroom tools with braille to electronic tablets with easily-accessible answers for questions. Such a legislation easily enabled a teacher to verify with her non-verbal student what he needed. No more guessing games, just pure communication.
Most recently, in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed. This law was the Obama administration’s answer to the challenges presented by No Child Left Behind. In particular, this law “advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.” As the majority of students in our public education system do not come from two-parent, middle-to-upper class families, upholding these protections will mean the difference between “Pomp and Circumstance” and prison.
So, what is next for our country’s educational practices? There is much discussion about the current administration’s plans, including merging the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. Proponents of Special Education are concerned about this administration’s desire to protect students’ civil rights, including quality, affordable education for all at-risk youth. While this is not limited to students with exceptionalities, it certainly includes them. As citizens, we can insist on being realistically represented by our government.
And as citizens of another kingdom, being aware of this issue can help us sensitively engage with one another. No one is sure why, but the diagnoses of children with autism alone is steadily increasing and often families of children with any kind of exceptionality can feel isolated. As members of the church, we are given the privilege of learning how to love each other well. Supporting families who face unique challenges in simply getting to a church building on Sunday morning is one way we can help.
Another is honestly evaluating how we see fellow image bearers with exceptionalities. How much have we bought into the idea that we are only worth as much as we produce? Or that physical and mental strength matters more than poverty of spirit? For that matter, how often do we secretly pity those with any sort of physical or mental exceptionality—or the families raising them—rather than think about the joy we might be missing out on?
Remember our second-grade class preparing for their new friend to join in morning meetings? Those students are now fifth graders and have formed lasting bonds. They will continue on to middle school well-equipped in reading, math, art, and reality. This class will be able to walk into a larger, more diverse school environment knowing how to include those of all levels, take responsibility for being a helpful citizen, and see others as fellow human beings.
Oh, and the therapy dog is named Jack.