Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Together or apart?

It is still discussed whether disabled children should be educated separately from non-disabled or together with them, but nowadays most people accept the latter opinion - even for disabilities that affect the very process of learning, as well as interacting with other people.
On Feb. 25, S. Ravishankar published on the WIP site the article From Marginalized to Mainstream: A Call for Inclusive Education in India. It reflects the author's personal experience as mother of a special needs girl who moved from India to America to seek better education for her daughter. Here are some quotes: "Through our own experiences, I’ve come to believe that the kind of change India needs will only come when society fosters sensitivity to the concerns of special-needs individuals by mainstreaming them with typically-learning children of their own age... In our search for a private tutor, we chanced upon two highly-trained and experienced teachers specializing in special education. Our child did quite well under their tutelage, but being a gregarious individual, needed to interact and socialize with typically-learning kids. Richard Riser, director of the London-based educational organization was quoted in India Together saying, “Special schools are dead-ends for special-needs children. They promote isolation, alienation and social exclusion"... India has a long journey ahead. A change in attitude towards people with disabilities will only come when more disabled people are included in regular schools and the workforce; they must be given the opportunity to participate in society as individuals of equal standing. Educating them alongside other children is the first step towards a more tolerant and well-adjusted society." Another interesting observation is that the quality of education was directly proportional to teachers' wages.

I discussed the article with some autistic friends and one of them replied, "One thing the author said bothered me:"Our child did quite well under their tutelage, but being a gregarious individual, needed to interact and socialize with typically-learning kids." What, other disabled kids aren't good enough?"
I said, "I think this is a very important question and it has come to my head, too... The current school system is set so that the education of each student heavily depends on the level of the other students in the classroom. As a result, each parent wishes his child to be among better performing children. If the child is above average, then classmates at the same level are acceptable, but if the child is below average (for any reason - disability, poor language skills, poor socio-economic background), then the parent doesn't want his child to be among children in a similar situation because they would allegedly "keep him behind". My opinion is that some way must be found for the education system not to depend on young children as co-teachers and rely on them - teaching should be responsibility of the adult professionals. Then parents will stop regarding other children as mere tools in the education of their children (or,alternatively, as obstacles to good education)."
Another mother added, "One thing that bothers me about this especially with autism in mind is that many parents assume that children learn social skills simply from being around other children. I can attest to the fact that that is simply not the case. Children on the (autism) spectrum do not pick up social skills by osmosis... Other children can be very unpredictable to an autistic child and that is the reason they may not enjoy being around other children... I seriously doubt that self absorbed children would even try to figure out a way to engage an autistic child. I was either ignored or made fun of in school by all but a few and I see the same thing with my son when he is in an environment with typical children. I would prefer my son to be in a class with peers who may take an interest in him. Right now he is in an autism unit at school and actually has friends because they share interests... He is very limited in speech but he writes their names and smiles and points to their picture excitedly as if to say this is my friend."

It is indeed strange how adults think that involuntary coexistence, which they wouldn't wish for themselves, would do wonders for children. This discussion reminded me of Estranged's March 11 post Kindergarten, part 2: Silvia, most of which I am translating below:
"One of the first things I saw at kindergarten was a child swallowing the ENTIRE soap in the bathroom. The teacher got angry and shouted that he would soon vomit. After a short silent waiting, her words came true and the child really vomited the soap. It was a disgusting sight. I was seeing such a thing for first time in my life, but I did not show my surprise to the others. That place was the hell for me and I was preparing to consider all sort of shocking things as normal.
The sight of the vomited soap did not prevent me from eating my lunch because I was already taught that I had to eat 100% of the meal in all cases, no matter how I was feeling.
However, I first checked my lunch for hidden surprises. In that place, paranoia was the only way to survive. As I was checking my milk, a drop from the spoon fell on my pants. I dried it quickly. At that moment, I heard the teacher telling all children, "See, he stained himself because he is Zhilov."
The only purpose of these words was to offend me publicly, this was quite evident. Something else, however, bothered me. I asked myself, Why did she say "Zhilov" (his family name - M.M.) and not "Vesko" (his first name)? What had my Zhilov family name to do with dropping milk on my pants? Since when does the name given to you determine your spoon-holding skills? Would I use the spoon better if I had been born with another child's name?
I was trying to discover in her words some hidden sense but it evidently didn't exist. It was just a stupid and illogical attempt to insult. For umpteenth time, adults were making fools of themselves by talking nonsense. This worried me because it meant I couldn't rely on adults at all.
Finally, I figured out the true meaning of those words. It came after a little while: "You boast that at the age of five you play the piano and can read... (I had never boasted, my grandmother was bragging about me and doing me much harm.) And at the same time you cannot drink a cup of milk. You are like Silvia."
Meanwhile, Silvia was sitting under the table and rolling a boiled egg in the dirt and dust. This statement also failed to offend me. I was really like Silvia and not ashamed of this.
Silvia was the first girl I befriended. We were both five years old. However, she behaved like a baby. She couldn't talk, and her drawings were meaningless scribbles.
Silvia and I weren't Real Children. One of the first things I learned was that I was required to play with a ball. Every Real Child in the world should be able to do this. However, I was seeing a ball for first time and had no idea what I was expected to do. Silvia and I were staying in the yard, and after some trials I learned how it was done. (Silvi, to my regret, couldn't, though I tried to teach her.) At the third day, I already had a good personal ball-playing record. I was glad but, interestingly, I had no illusions. I didn't expect my success to lead to my recognition as a Real Child - I already knew that there was nothing fair about the entire business, so it wouldn't matter even if I had managed to stand on my nose.
I protected Silvia from the real children. They said I was her boyfriend...
Later, I left the kindergarten. I was hearing stories about how Silvia's classmates at school humiliated her. They forced her to drink water from pools and to eat mud. Then Silvia went to a special school and - oh wonder! - after several years became a relatively normal person. A feat I never managed to do.
Silvia surely does not remember me, but I do remember her. I have changed the name of course."

The term "Real child" is interesting. Independently from Estranged, the Chaotic Idealist last year wrote in a post titled Real People:
"I started a conversation with a random stranger.
Me: "I've got Asperger's. It's like mild autism. I guess nowadays I'd have been a special ed kid."
Her: "That's OK. I like special people just as much as real people."...
I wonder if that's common? Do people really think we're not as "real" as other people? And what does "real" mean?... "Real" is probably an unofficial synonym for "normal"."


John said...

An interesting post Maya . As a parent of a special needs child in New Zealand our experiance with her has been one of great support from the social system here . Primarily the parents can choose how their children are educated . My daughter has a rare partial chromasome deletion which has left her developmentally delayed .She has been in a mainstream school in our area together with her brother up until year five .She had a support worker in class and when we decided it was appropriate we sent her to a special school which is attached to a mainstream school. There she has physiotherapy,speech therapy , occupational therapy as well as a support worker and her teacher . The class is small and the staff very skilled . The children also participate in activities with the mainstream school as able . It is important for both the children and my daughter to socialise and interract.This has helped her development and also the devleopment of her peers at school . I believe a combination rather than 'together or apart' is the best way forward . It is a basic human right that children have the opportunity to gain education no matter what their abilities .

Maya M said...

Thank you, John! I think you are right.