Do Kids with Disabilities Strain or Strengthen Our Schools?

Posted by: Anne Newman on September 27

So what goes through your mind when you see a child with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, an adolescent with the social short-circuiting of Aspergers, or a kid whose speech isn’t as quick and facile as his peers? Few of us are as candid as my friend Dan Habib about the prejudice he once held against kids and adults with disabilities. “When I saw people who couldn’t walk or talk … It’s painful to admit, but I often saw them as less smart, less capable, and not worth getting to know.”  That was a lifetime ago. Specifically, the life of Dan’s son, Samuel, a fourth grader with cerebral palsy whose odysseys and those of four others with disabilities are chronicled in Dan’s award-winning documentary, Including Samuel. The film chronicles the efforts of Dan, his wife, Betsy, and their older son, Isaiah, to involve Samuel in every part of their lives and in the public schools in their hometown of Concord, N.H. When I first blogged about the film in May it had just been featured on the likes of Good Morning America and NPR’s All Things Considered and was catching on among advocates of inclusion, as Dan says, “giving all individuals equal opportunity to learn and engage with their peers.” The film has since spanned the globe with screenings from Iraq to Belgium and throughout this country with showings and discussions at universities, school districts, and disability rights conferences. And Samuel, whom I first met when he was a baby at a Thanksgiving dinner shared by our two extended families, has since developed fascinations held not so long ago by my sixth-grade son: the Titanic and all things related to it, the deafening roar of a throng of boys cheering their wooden race cars over the finish line in that annual Cub Scout ritual, the pinewood derby.

With National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October) around the corner, the Habibs have taken the film and their campaign for inclusion up a few more levels: Including Samuel is about to air across the nation on PBS broadcasts supported by the National Inclusion Project and CVS Caremark All Kids Can, a CVS program to help kids with disabilities. Isaiah has helped put together a “teen movie party toolkit,” encouraging kids to set up their own screenings of the film with their friends and posing questions only an 8th grader like himself could ask: “Have you ever seen kids in wheelchairs being pushed down the hall of your school by someone that looks like they’re thinking about retirement?” And Dan, once a national award-winning photographer for the Concord Monitor and a Pulitzer Prize jurist this year, now supports his work and family as the filmmaker in residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

But in this economy, just how much enthusiasm is Dan getting for inclusion? Not everyone is a fan—not by a long shot, judging by some of the comments on my blog last May. While the vast majority of commenters agreed that inclusion should be the next civil rights movement, there were dissenters. “Why do we even bother paying for education for these kids?,” wrote a commenter named Lilly. “Their parents chose to have kids and now their disability and special needs amount to a rise in taxes. Their parents just get a lawyer and fight and fight until the school district ends up paying for special programs. Why? Why not divert the funds for gifted and talented students instead of kids who will need societal support their whole life.”

Lilly’s anger about how taxpayers’ money is spent is not unheard of. How many of us have heard the same complaint in our own school districts? And how many Lillys does Dan run into on his travels?

I pitched that question to him by e-mail, and he replied with a list of “myths and realities” about inclusion. One myth, he says, is the notion that taxpayers are throwing away money by educating kids with disabilities. His response: “How can Lilly or anyone else predict which child will contribute to our society? Would Lilly really argue that Bernie Madoff … added more to the world than the physicist Stephen Hawking (who wrote his greatest work after he was severely disabled by ALS)? How about Albert Einstein (widely thought to have had Asperger Syndrome), Helen Keller (blind, deaf, and unable to speak) and Vincent Van Gogh (mentally ill)? People are not limited by their disability, they are limited by a lack of opportunity.”

Another complaint? “Inclusion just stresses out teachers and takes away from the education of the ‘other’ kids.” Says Dan: “Nearly every teacher I have met in my travels has told me that teaching kids of varying abilities and learning styles has made them a better teacher. Inclusion has reinforced the importance of cutting-edge teaching methods like differentiated instruction, co-teaching, and universally designed curriculum, which benefit all kids in the classroom.”

What about it, readers? If you attended a school that included students with special needs, what was your experience? Have your attitudes about such children changed over the years? Do students with disabilities in your schools learn along with their peers? Are your schools strained or strengthened by including them?

Business Week


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