Today’s madness topic is something that has been bothering me for quite a while. We have a long way to go to make schools inclusive. I was first made aware of the following madness by local parents, but with time I saw this stuff everywhere I went, in too many schools. I am most regretful that I just accepted these practices and gave them no thought for far too many years.
When we think inclusive, act inclusive, actually walk the talk of inclusive, we must consider all the ways we can develop and support a school wide inclusive community. This doesn’t mean only in classrooms using differentiation, making accommodations and modifying the content. This means the whole school.
No, this is not a how to be inclusive post. There are many people far more qualified than I am writing about fabulous ways to be inclusive. I am talking about ways in which we think we are being inclusive, but are, in fact, further perpetuating the limits we have historically inflicted on people with special needs.
Too many schools are using certain special needs groups as janitors. Yep. In an attempt to provide certain groups of students with ‘real life’ job skills, we decided years ago that during the school day wiping tables after lunch, mopping floors, emptying trash and recycling bins, and picking up litter on school grounds were great ways to build those job skills. Isn’t that great? We are actually providing Johnny with an ‘opportunity’ to build a skill set! We are awesome, oh so clever. We are preparing our students for the ‘real’ world of work.
Um, no. What we are doing is perpetuating the belief that cleaning up after others is all certain groups of people should aspire to, that we are doing them a favor by ‘letting’ them have a job so they feel needed and have a sense of purpose. Think about this for a minute. If we start this hideous practice in intermediate grades and continue through high school, we are sealing the deal by confirming the belief that some groups are lesser than others. That some groups are just there to clean up after others. That we don’t have to interact with the ‘lesser thans’. We can dismiss them as they are workers, not peers. This practice allows the general population to stay disengaged.
And as our general education students leave the cafeteria for recess or class, their special needs peers are left behind to wipe tables and mop floors. How is that inclusive? How is that providing natural and spontaneous social interaction? How is that assuring the general education population experiences their special needs peers as engaged learners, as friends, as whole beings? They aren’t going to class or recess after lunch, so they aren’t really ‘one of us’. Academics must not be as important to our special needs peers because they are wiping up in the cafeteria instead of going to class. And the social needs kids internalize that they do not belong, that they are not deserving of a richer life at school.
This practice is madness. While the original intent was well meaning, the actual unintended consequences are damaging and further marginalize a population of kids in our schools. That is not inclusive.
We all want our special needs students to be able to experience what their general education peers experience in school. Well, to a certain point. Let’s have a ‘special abilities’ (how condescending) prom every spring! And to make it even more special, let’s have one of the clubs at school sponsor it. Aren’t we awesome? The good samaritan club can feel really good about themselves while they plan a separate, and not equal, prom for the special education kids. They are so cute when they dress up and have a dance to go to. We are so lucky, we should give back.
How about you give back by inviting them to eat at your table during lunch? Oh, I forgot, you can’t because they are cleaning up after you. Whew, that was close!
So, these ‘special abilities’ proms happen all over our country. How is this inclusive? It’s one night. It sends a loud and very clear message that the ‘special abilities’ group does not belong at the ‘regular’ prom so they need their own. There is a real prom for us, and a completely different sweet little prom sponsored by us for you. We will provide a DJ, door prizes, cookies and punch and it will start at 6:00 and end at 8:00. The message is this. Since we are having this little prom for you, no need to try and come to our ‘real’ prom. And how many general education peers come to the ‘special abilities’ prom and hang out? None. Yeah, that’s authentic, isn’t it? And the sponsors of the special abilities prom stand behind the ticket booth, the refreshment table, or in little clusters of their group condescendingly commenting on how adorable the prom attendees are and planning where they will go for some real fun when this is over at 8:00.
I sound cynical. Because I am.
I know parents who are super happy about the ‘special abilities’ proms and that their kids are getting real world job skills while at school. And I know I am touching a really sore spot that won’t ever heal when I bring these issues to light. I am the parent of two kids on the spectrum and I totally get it. We are robbed of so many rights of passage and coming of age experiences with our kids, we will take any crumb thrown to us. One of my kids enjoys going to the ‘special needs’ prom. It’s early, he can leave after an hour, he can have a cookie or two. It’s one of the only ways he can spend time with the few kids he enjoys being with. He only gets to be with them on the bus ride to and from school and in an occasional art, music or PE class. He is lonely at school. His general education peers don’t reach out. The classes he attends are more academically challenging than the classes his preferred peer group attends. How crazy is that? There is exclusion among the excluded. My kid is so very lonely during his school day. He jumps at the chance to be with his social peer group, even if only at one event per school year.
But the time has come to reconsider what we are doing to make sure there are no unintended negative consequences. Even if this stuff makes us feel good while we are doing it, we have to ask ourselves if what we are doing is perpetuating any limiting beliefs about our special needs students.
We have hard work ahead. I think we are up for it. We better be.