Friday, February 11, 2011

America's Great Social Experiment

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  As of last month, the Burlington School District finally installed an elevator in the middle school.  “It took years of citizen advocacy and about $1.5 million, but Edmunds Middle School is now accessible to people with mobility issues” stated the local paper.  I don’t know that my daughter will ever make it to the middle school to use that elevator, but the ribbon-cutting ceremony was noteworthy.  Issues of mobility, inclusion and disability made it in the newspaper. Many residents, other than just school children, use the building where the elevator was installed.  The act of installing an elevator was not a simple gesture, but one of great symbolic importance to many people.  It was a public statement that including all types of people in our city's buildings is of great consequence.

Here in Vermont there are no designated “special education” classes in our school, so issues of accessibility are paramount.    I’m learning this as we have started shopping around for kindergarten for our twin daughters.  I’m still so old school, and expected that Sylvie would somehow be segregated from her peers in a special education classroom. Sylvie’s current educational team has been phenomenal in preparing us and the school district for Sylvie’s transition into kindergarten.  When we visited our local school during a recent open house, I was encouraged that the administrators and teachers knew we were coming and were prepared to answer our questions about accessibility. The school seems prepared to deal with Sylvie’s mobility limitations, and her own instructional assistant will be designated (read: will be found!) later this spring.  Right now, including Sylvie in the elementary school classroom is still theoretical. It’s worked well in pre-school, but let’s see how it plays itself out in a larger system.  As far as I’m concerned, the US public education has always been a bit of a social experiment.  And to integrate kids with disabilities into the classroom with “typical” students has both its dangers and rewards. 

A couple of weeks ago, after the public announcement of the new elevator, there was a showing of the documentary “Including Samuel.”  I didn’t make it to the film or discussion, but a friend of mine went who is particularly interested and committed to inclusion and diversity issues in the classroom.  He said that while the film was quite good, the entire discussion about “inclusion” was contrary—he felt neither welcome nor encouraged by what he heard about how “inclusion” was being framed.  In his mind, he imagined that issues of inclusion were not just focusing on disabilities, but also other issues such as race, class, nationality, religion and gender.  As a gay man who is also a single father, he wants to be an ally to people with disabilities and their families, but he felt excluded in the conversation!  So we all have our work cut out for us in the social experiment known as public education.  We need to remember that even though our kids are "atypical" there are lots of others who also need to be included. So far, I’m gamed to see how the experiment goes, so long as my children are not harmed in the process.

When Kirsten isn’t shoveling snow in Vermont,  she works as a professor of Communication Studies at the State University of New York and is the mother of 5-year old twin girls.

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