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A parent's perspective.

Carlos Oberti has spend three years fighting for public school inclusion of Rafael, his eight-year-old son who has Down Syndrome. In 1990, Clementon (N.J.) School District officials refused to educate Rafael in regular classes because they felt that Rafael's disabilities would keep him from benefiting from placement in a regular classroom. The Oberti's lost a local court case against the school district, then won a Federal District Court. The school district appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in May, 1993. The appeal failed. Representing the unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeals, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Edward R. Becker wrote:

We construe IDEA's mainstreaming requirement to prohibit a school from placing a child with disabilities outside of a regular classroom if educating the child in the regular classroom, with supplementary aids and support services, can be achieved satisfactorily. In addition, if placement outside of a regular classroom is necessary for the child to receive educational benefit, the school may still be violating IDEA if it has not made sufficient efforts to include the child in school programs with nondisabled children whenever possible. We also hold hat the school bears the burden of proving compliance with the mainstreaming requirement of IDEA, regardless of which party (the child and parents or the second) brought the claim under IDEA before the district court.

In April 1993, Mr. Oberit spoke to educators at a colloquium on inclusion at Keane College of New Jersey/School of Education. The following article is an adaptation of his speech.

Inclusion or Mainstreaming

In our experience, mainstreaming was merely placing a child with special needs in a classroom with regular peers. In contrast, inclusion provides teachers and students with tools needed to help children--including children with disabilities--to learn.

As parents, we are very much aware of the differences of our children. We are the first one to know when a child is different and we are able to go through the stages of coping with that fact. When children with disabilities get to be of school age, it is very clear to use whether or not they are going to learn at the same speed as their peers. That is why mainstreaming alone did not work for our son. The expectation was to physically include him without addressing his special needs or the needs of his teachers. This is why I suggest we speak of "supported inclusive education."

Attitudes

To have a positive attitude we have to start by acceping the fact that we are not created equal. Each child has his own rate of development and deserves the opportunity to be exposed to a healthy learning environment. Educators--perhaps bureaucrats more than educators--have come to the realization that grouping children using a perceived notion of learning speed or intelligence test scores does not work. Evaluating with standard test scores is easy because tests are mathematical and fit well with classifications and labels--but they do not work.

Skills for Inclusion

Educators do not need to go through extensive training sessions and hundreds of hours of planning to make sure they cover every possible situation that ultimately will never arise. Due to the fact that there are as many ability levels as there are students, it is impossible to have an exact prescription for all of the students. This is an asset because we can adapt the available resources to meet changing requirements.

Need for Special Educators

Inclusion does not do away with special education teachers. Nothing can be further from the truth because special educators are a key part of educating differently-able children in inclusive environments. They are needed to work with the regular teachers to exchange ideas, create strategies and measure progress.

Benefits to All Students

Inclusive education can benefit all of the students and all of the teachers. Children with special needs learn to cope with their differences. They learn via the oldest and most primary form of education: imitation. They imitate speech; theyy imitate behaviors and they adapt to the social requirements of group interaction. How can we expect children with disabilities to become contributing members of society if we isolate them from children without disabilities for 13 years of school life?

All children benefit from being in an inclusive environment by learning to interact with all members of society regardless of their differences. They get an early exposure to attitudes and behaviors contrary to the harmful perjudices that some adults have. Through helping one another, they get a sense of unity and cooperation. They learn about social responsibility, caring and team work. They receive the kindness and friendship that all people, including those with special needs, have to offer.

Teachers learn from the challenge--from the creative demand that enhances their ability to teach. They learn from watching the students interact, which in turn allows them to discover the abilities each one of them has to offer. They learn about the hearts of the students. They get the opportunity to teach values such as kindness, generosity, sharing, friendship, loyalty, leadership and responsibility. Most of all, they provide opportunities for all to build self-esteem.

Self-esteem

To me as a parent, the most important issue of inclusion is self-esteem. We must realize that many of the social problems our society faces today are the result of poor self-esteem in individuals who never had the environment or the opportunities to develop a healthy appreciation of themselves.

Good self-esteem at school age allows children to believe they can do things well. It gives them the assurance that if they dare to create new thing they have a chance to succeed. If we group children with disabilities together, they will surely see themselves only in their peers and are likely to learn inappropriate behaviors from each others.

With inclusion, we are placing children with special needs in the regular classroom, giving them the opportunities they deserve and allowing peer modeling of appropriate behaviors. We are subconsciously letting them know that they are equal to any other human being and capable of meeting our expectations.

Expectations in a non-inclusive environment tend to be low and the possibility for a child to get out of that self-perpetuating environment is often slim--provoking an endless chain of placements that often taxes society. When a child is given the opportunity and presented with the challenges of self help, he is far more likely to become independent enough to lead a productive adult life without continuing to tax society.

The social and educational implications go beyond the child with special needs. They surely affect every family member. Separating children of the same family often means shipping the child with special needs to a distant location making the possibility of a brother helping a brother or a brother helping a sister impossible. It makes the children without disabilities in the family feel as if they are different, and implies that they have to hide the fact that they have a brother or a sister with special needs.

Each Child Can Learn

Until now, the educational system seemed to believed that educators are the only ones responsible for the education of children. Little by little, they have built barriers to keep parents away. As a result, educated parents feel great amounts of frustration and helplessness. They feel obliged to accept the system as it is--without a say in what should be done and as if they were not the ones paying for the education. Less-educated parents miss the opportunity to learn how to guide their children and to motivate them to pursue education as the fun thing to do.

This must change. Parents like us will surely pursue the change at any cost. The best way for children to succeed is to have a coherent, organized effort from parents and educators working together. This is an important element for inclusion because many of the skills for teaching children with special needs can be learned from the extensive experience of the parents.

The question is not whether children with disabilities are smart but rather how they are smart. Discovering and helping all students learn what they are good at is critical to success. That discovery is far more likely to take place when you challenge them in an inclusive environment. The more they use their natural talents, the more they will succeed and the happier they will be.

When students are in a class that does not call on their strength, they will be unhappy and restless--"discipline problems" likely to drop out. Children become bored or frustrated when what they can be good at is not recognized.

I will never forget the meeting I had with a so-called Child Study Team. We were supposed to develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for my son. The learning consultant started by reading a list of what they thought were the "deficits" our son had. I had come to the meeting with a list off his abilitie and strengths. I told them I felt they were not prepared to develop the IEP. Then I got up and left.

Inclusion recognizes and nurtures each student's unique intelligence and ability because a child does better when he or she exercises his strengths. Recognition and respect for what they are good at gives them confidence, which in turn allows them to grow in other areas. In an inclusive environment with cooperative learning, children learn to appreciate their peers' strength--and they learn from each other.

Everyone can learn. But educators must have high expectations for every student, based on recognized abilities. Children with special needs have a different set of abilities and speed with which they acquire knowledge. Our challenge is to build on what they come with. Only then can all children have the opportunity to enter the mainstream of society.

The requirement for America is to give all children the chance to experience the powerful adventures of learning, whatever their circumstances may be. In the end there is no mystery to inclusion. It comes down to the extraordinary power an adult can have when he or she pays careful attention to a child.

As parent we have only a few goals for all our kids--that they learn how to learn, communicate, concentrate, get information, feel deeply and act wisely. Always remember that parents are gold; they can transfer the bond they have with their children to the educators and complete the circle for learning success. Join our revolution; respect individuality and creativity.

Believe in your students. Believe in the fact that every child has a gift that is very individual. Believe that everybody can learn. Believe in cooperation and sharing among your students. Then you will have the power to liberate their human potential to the best of their ability. Set our children free.
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Title Annotation:Carlos Oberti, 1993 Inclusion Award winner
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:1797
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