When we think of legally segregated and unequal schools, we usually think of the Jim Crow system of “Black and White” schools. Most of us know from our social studies classes, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregating children by race was unconstitutional and that there were no such things as schools that were segregated and also equal. Schools for the majority group, White students, were far better resourced, better funded and had better outcomes than the schools for Black children.
Racial segregation was supposed to end in 1956. It didn’t. While things have changed since 1956, we know that many students still attend racially segregated schools. We also know that even when schools are sufficiently integrated, children of color are overrepresented within the special education population and are, again, disproportionately segregated from instructional and social opportunities when compared with their White peers.
In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guaranteed the rights of disabled children to receive free and appropriate public education but, like racial integration, that guarantee, too, has yet to be fully realized.
Well, today, I posit that we are at a crucial junction in our country's history, where we need to decide if segregation, or “separate but equal” schools, are acceptable in our nation. This time, instead of race, we need to decide the legality, morality, and the responsibility of the United States to provide equal, quality schools to all children, especially children with disabilities. Or, do we continue to discriminate and offer segregated, poor-quality and harmful schools to the more than 7 million disabled students in our public schools.
Seclusion Rooms Are Only the Tip of the Iceberg
Recently, there has been much more attention given to the many problems with the practice of forcing children with disabilities into isolated timeout rooms that were deemed dangerous. In fact, after a news story exposed the extent of this practice in Illinois, the governor took emergency measures to halt isolated seclusion. People were horrified to hear that children with disabilities as young as 3 and 4 years old were placed in padded rooms, alone, for their “protection.” State lawmakers are now pushing bills to end the practice permanently.
As both a parent of a child with a disability and a disability advocate, I know that the story of seclusion rooms is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the segregation of children with disabilities in our schools. Our country is in a crisis because we have decided that it is okay to treat disabled children as second-class citizens, without the right to a proper education like their peers without disabilities.
Across the nation, children with disabilities are being forced into separate schools, and those “lucky enough” to be in “normal” schools are being forced into separate classrooms.
Design With Disabilities in Mind
There are a lot of small excuses that people use to explain how we got to this point, but I think the problem is simple and the solution is easy to implement. Schools are designed in an archaic, industrial model, and we are trying to force disabled children to fit into this mold. Instead, we need to plan for schools to be designed for children with disabilities to be a part of them.
The role of “special education” is to give the students with disabilities the accommodations they need to be successful in the normal school environment (where they are fully included, everywhere). For example, if a child needs a wheelchair, schools should have space for a child in a wheelchair. If a child has sensory needs and has a hard time sitting still for long periods or needs to jump and wiggle, schools should have diverse seating options, such as yoga balls, leg bands or even a space in the classroom where kids can pay attention while sitting on the floor.
Inclusion means children with disabilities are fully integrated into the school community. It means that children with disabilities are going to school, attending classes and participating in activities with their friends who are not disabled.
As a country that values diversity, we cannot continue to “remove” diverse students with disabilities from our schools and classrooms. We can’t have full inclusion if all children aren’t learning together with children with disabilities.
The traditional school model where kids sit at desks isn’t an inclusive school. Trying to fit kids into this mold is setting them up for failure. It’s ruining their opportunity to understand diversity.
Can you imagine how wonderful and tolerant our world would be if people were used to being around people with physical, developmental and mental disabilities? What if kids went to school with classmates who were “runners,” students who stim, students who have down syndrome or cerebral palsy, or even non-verbal students?
Because of their exposure to disabled students in schools, they would know that none of those things correlate with intelligence or a disabled person's ability to participate in projects.
Imagine how this might lead to a world, where we all know to design all spaces, jobs, churches and institutions with accommodations for disabled folks.
An Inclusive America for People with Disabilities
Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream of an inclusive America that included all races; I have a dream of an inclusive America that includes people with disabilities, too.
To get there, we have to dramatically reimagine schools. Instead of trying to get kids to conform to outdated norms of classrooms, we need to design classrooms that include people with different needs.
The solution is simple: Create schools and classrooms that expect to have diverse learners and children with disabilities in the beginning—not as an afterthought.
Specifically, it would mean three things:
- Physically accessible buildings, including buildings designed to reduce sensory issues.
- Support staff and physical aides for children with sensory needs, including sensory rooms, headphones and other assistive technology.
- Planned space for children who need to run, scream or move.
Schools need to understand that having all students see physical and mental diversity in their classrooms is a goal of a truly well-rounded education. Teachers need to understand that students with disabilities aren’t just distractions. Students, teachers and school administrators need to see and understand that a disability isn’t a liability.
Finally, I would like to point out a very important fact. There isn’t any accommodation made for people with disabilities that doesn’t support all people. I use elevators, weighted blankets and fidget balls all the time, even though those aren’t my specific disabilities.
If we put in an elevator in school, you might break your leg and need to use it. And even though your child may not be on the autism spectrum, they may benefit from sensory breaks. When we design schools with children with disabilities in mind from the start, the accommodations benefit everyone. But in order to accomplish this, it requires us to look at our schools in a new way and plan very differently for the future. And it also requires the resources to redesign schools from that new perspective.
We don’t have an accurate estimate of the costs to provide all these accommodations and services—yet. But it takes more than money. First, we must all believe that a better America is possible.
We need to decide we will no longer stand for segregated schools for disabled children, and in partnership with our disabled people and disability advocates, demand that lawmakers create a plan for fully inclusive schools.
We must all take MLK’s dream for desegregation and include people with disabilities in that vision. We have to know that diversity in classrooms is good for all of us and fight like hell to make it a reality.