Somewhere a long time ago, we went terribly wrong when we thought we had found a way to quantify intelligence and assign number scores to everyone. So much time and effort have gone into developing tests that give an objective figure that is supposed to tell us what a person's ability to learn might be. And then we carried it further yet by putting labels with the numbers: terms like "gifted," "moron," "imbecile," "trainable," even "normal" should never have been allowed into popular usage. So much damage has been done! Can we possibly bring about a serious paradigm shift and look at all people as people, with varying learning styles and learning curves, varying (and valuable!) strengths and interests? Can we possibly move on with a new way of looking at things?
Being told as a child that one is "gifted" can cause just as much life-long trauma as hearing the term "retarded" being tossed around in one's presence. Could we possibly ban all such labels forever?
In my first year as a teacher, I was incredibly naive but oh so idealistic and full of enthusiasm. The kids in that first class were also my first real teachers when it came to learning about "special" education. There were eight of them, roughly between the ages of six and 12, all carrying the label of "educable mentally retarded" or EMR. For our first month together, we were located in a Sunday School room in the basement of a church one block away from the school in which we were officially enrolled. They must have been working on a more suitable arrangement, or maybe some parent complained, because we were soon moved to a room within the regular public school.
I was thrilled to have a job, and loved the kids. Life was good. Looking back, however, some things were missing. I had no materials, no supervisor (other than the building principal who knew nothing about Special Education), no budget, no integration, and absolutely no time to myself. From the moment we arrived in the morning till I sent the kids home at the end of the day, we were in this new experience together. I was invited to visit the storage closet nearby where a variety of unused books, workbooks and other educational materials were available for my use. It was great - I have always loved garage sales, and this one was all school-related. What more could I ask for?! (Well, maybe a bathroom break and some quiet lunch time, for starters.)
It was the early years of having kids with mild handicapping conditions in the public schools and we all had a lot to learn. The law requiring public schools to welcome "ALL" students into their buildings was still a long way off.
And that is how I got my start at speaking up and advocating for kids. It was only a whisper in that first year, but somehow I boldly told more than one set of parents that I really didn't think their child was "retarded." They might have a problem with attention, or maybe their speech was very hard to understand. Maybe it was a different learning style (I admit I knew nothing about this at this time in my life), or behavior issues were interfering with learning. But I truly believed all of these kids were capable of learning and deserved a more inclusive and appropriate academic education than I was providing in my very limited classroom. If anyone in the school district had been paying attention to what I was doing, I realize now that I might have been without a job after just one year!
Fast forward about 25 years: In the meantime I had taught in a residential facility, a school specifically for those with the most severe disabilities (i.e, the lowest IQ scores), and now find myself back in a regular school trying to make inclusive education a reality for kids who presented many more challenges than that original group did. I have learned so much from the kids, but am still "stuck" in my thinking to the point that I am providing mostly functional life skills training to the kids in my current classroom.
Again, they range in age from about six to twelve, but now the label has changed. These kids are considered to be "moderately to severely cognitively disabled" - comparable to our old label of "trainable mentally retarded." Our classroom is right in the middle of the elementary school, and everyone is supposed to be working to "mainstream" the kids as much as possible.
I was moved out into the mainstream because I had become somewhat of a thorn in the side of the administrators at the special school. I was concerned that too many kids were being isolated from their more typical peers and we weren't following the intent of the law that said all kids should be educated together. My voice was getting a little louder - although I definitely tended to prefer putting my thoughts into writing over speaking them out loud - and essentially I was given the chance to put my money where my mouth had been. No one knew if this would work, and there was lots of opposition from parents, teachers, administrators - even local newspapers. We had never done things this way. The kids would be teased. Teachers in regular classes weren't prepared for this. On and on and on -- barriers everywhere.
I was told to design a program that would allow these kids to work on their life skills in the setting of regular school - how to use a public restroom, move safely through the halls, eat lunch in a cafeteria, play outside during recess, etc. What I learned very quickly (again the kids were my teachers) was that these kids were way ahead of me. If they were going to be in this setting, they wanted to do what the other kids were doing - they wanted books, notebooks, and all the other educational trappings they saw around them. And they wanted/needed academics, not life skills.
This was so new to me. I spent my nights at home combing through unfamiliar teachers' manuals trying to put together lessons that would meet their needs; I used all the interpersonal skills I would muster in the teachers' lounge to get the regular educators to consider including my students in their classrooms.
Then there was the computer that was included as part of our classroom furniture. It was frustratingly new to me, and didn't appeal to all the kids, but for some it had almost a magnetic effect. They were highly motivated to explore all the possibilities (vastly more limited than today's options, as you might imagine) and always unafraid to push more buttons or insert a different disk to see what it might offer. At first I was terrified that we would "break" it and cause major expenses, but as time went on and I found myself busy with other things happening in the room, I gradually let go and turned it over to those enterprising young students who seemed to know much more about this new technology than I did.
To be continued --- I still had so much to learn!