Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inclusion vs. special schools: the choice

The year before I had my son, I read an amazing article in the New York Times Magazine about a father who fought long and hard to get his little boy, who has cerebral palsy, integrated into a regular public school class. “The Lessons of Classroom 506”  was incredibly moving and inspirational. Thomas’s father, Richard Ellenson, had done battle with a byzantine system, and won.

The following year, I had a baby who had a stroke at birth; it lead to cerebral palsy.

As Max went through Early Intervention, I always had that article in the back of my mind. But when it came time for him to enter school, and we met with the evaluation team in our district, it became very clear: Our local school could not accommodate Max. He had too many therapies, too many challenges.

I thought about fighting the system, but then I decided it really was the best thing for Max would be to get the intensive therapy he needed early on in life.

That was four years ago. These days, Max is in a fantastic school for kids with special powers (my hotly-debated new term for special needs that I’m trying to use whenever possible). He’s thriving there. The teachers know just how to teach him. The physical therapist has been the major reason Max learned to walk up and down stairs. The speech therapist helped us get an iPad and Proloquo2Go speech app to trial, and she bends over backward to help find good spoons and cups that’ll encourage Max to eat and drink independently.  

It’s all good—and yet, I keep wondering about getting Max into the school in our district. The questions in my mind are endless: How could Max benefit if he were around kids who could speak fluently and play with him in ways his classmates can’t? Would the therapists be as good? Would it be too disruptive for his schedule to be pulled out of class so constantly for therapy? What kind of aide would he have—especially now that our district had to lay off dozens of them and hire temps? Wouldn’t it be good for Max’s future real-world life to be an actual part of the real world, as opposed to the specialized and rarified one of his school? Am I fooling myself—maybe he’ll never be part of the real world?

The next step, obviously, is to contact the district coordinator. But I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. 

Ellen blogs daily at Love That Max


  1. Until last Dec I would never have entertained the idea of going into special ed. I have a low behavioural, reading at Gr level, be careful what you teach him b/c he's going to mimick you, severely autistic, barely verbal nearly 9yr old.
    Then we hit Gr 3. Aide was the same - wonderful woman - teacher what not who we were promised. Xmas report card came with a "Classroom participation - N", yet it's been in the IEP since K.
    So.... Mama threw a hiss. 99% of children with his dx either land in behavioural or ASD rooms. Wasn't going there. The Special Ed guy - fwiw I had the paperwork in place at K that allowed me to throw the hiss - offered us a room in a school in the town to the N. It's a low behavioural, verbal, slow learners/LD classroom. 8kids, 2 aides, one amazing Teacher. He's THRIVING. The setting allows him to make choices - like riding a bike for the first time EVER last Tues (8+yrs of trying and she does it in 2wks) during recess in the gym - a place where speech/language and conversation is one of the most important skills she works on every day with all of them. Where breaks to use the trampoline are as important as mastering the next Math fact....
    He LOVES it!!!!
    At the end of the day, if he's thriving, learning, happy..... I'm not rushing to return him to the regular program. B/c the rest will be dumped in together come Gr 7... we will be returning to regular ed - we're not going in with the severely ID/behavioural kids - at that time. At Gr 9, since it is doubtful they will willingly put in an aide in and mainstream him... We'll probably be homeschooling.

  2. Ellen! -- I have been thinking about just this topic. Have you seen the documentary "Including Samuel" by Dan Habib? I brought it home to watch this weekend. Dan contacted me and I'm hoping we may do an interview. But the documentary is all about inclusion and it focuses on Dan's son and a number of other children/teens. It comes with a lot of educational material.
    In Toronto, I found there was a big push for inclusion in the early years, and then as soon as you hit middle school, they don't even pretend it exists for kids with significant disabilities. I once had a meeting and someone at the board, when I asked why they couldn't make integration work in the older years, said: "So is Ben going to sit in a regular high school physics class?" How could I respond to that?
    So for the last 4 years he's been in a segregated school -- one for kids who are deaf/hard of hearing and one for kids who have mild intellectual disability (and it has a class for kids who are deaf/HH and use sign). But I can't help thinking that it would be better for him to be around a mix of kids and it makes me furious that this isn't feasible.
    I'm glad that Max is doing so well at his school. Unfortunately, I think it's hard to replicate the specialized teaching of separate schools in a regular classroom (at least here, they just don't put the resources into the class).
    You may want to get a copy of Including Samuel. It has a neat Viewers' Guide that comes with it with background on inclusion and also thought-provoking questions to think about as you watch the movie.
    Let us know what you decide!

  3. Our son is almost 21 now. At 3 he was placed in an orthopedically handicapped classroom. Once he was more medically stable - he transitioned to a Deaf and Hard of Hearing classroom, and then ultimately mainstreamed with a full time health aid/translator. Successes educationally.
    The best peers and friends he could have had were in the orthopedically handicapped class. Because they shared the basis of multiple medical and physical concerns - those issues were never addressed - they are simply understood. Even now, at near 21, the friends our son most easily makes are those who have something so large on their own plates - they haven't the beandwidth to take note that our son is somehow "different". When he gets together with his friends who share his primary medical diagnosis (CHARGE Syndrome) - they don't really discuss their condition - but they getonto discussing life - without any attention to the medicall, physical and/or sensorial differences they have. If they discuss some aspect - it is their own reactions - not the consition. They aren't "other" to themselves. They just are.
    In hindsight, this is one of the gifts of a special classroom that I regret not having more of.
    Whatever your heart tells you will be the right thing. You can always change your mind again when that impulse and time might come. Each choice has it's own grace and hindsight. The gifts of the choice we made are not as clear to me as the potential gifts of the choice we did not.
    Best to you.

  4. Louise, there has been court battles to keep the children in a mainstreamed program when they reach highschool in Ontario. In the public system, the courts have agreed with the school boards. Some have had luck with the Catholic system.
    I appreciate that maybe they won't be able to do OAC Physics... not that the current crop of kids can do the Gr 13 Physics I did 20yrs ago b/c the curriculum's getting worse and teaching poorer every year... But, they don't deserve to be "trained" or in a h/s classroom like the one here where the one child has 6 EA's and is violent, the regular kids are in lockdown a lot of the day and taught how to advoid him b/c he'll attack if you look at him... He's not the only one out there... And I'm NEVER putting my child in such a room!!! We may be "delayed" but we're still learning... we will never return to "training" IBI was enough and that was a disaster. For those with deaf children have you ever tried cued speech.... my online friend teaches it and thought it was much better than American sign language... Just my PSA for the day :) :)

  5. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts/experiences. Much to digest and ponder. Louise, I saw Including Samuel and have been in contact with Dan (I featured him on my blog, he's amazing). I still struggle with to include or not to include....

  6. I taught in an elementary school special education classroom, and I find that few are able to really accomodate inclusion the way it should be done. Or at least around here. Not that it doesn't have its advantages, but I think at the moment, it is more beneficial for us to have Will in a special school, much for the reasons you mention. He's making fabulous progress, and it is because they have the resources and time to devote to him. I know that my son is likely going to need some level of my care for the rest of his life, so my main priority is to take him to his full potential....teach him as much as he can hold, and that simply wouldn't happen in a mainstream class right now.