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Being realistic.

For many years, parents of children with disabilities were told to be "realistic" about the abilities of their children. They were warned to be careful not to put their children into situations where they would be unable to succeed. And parents who disagreed with this advice and encouraged their children to take risks were considered parents with problems who were likely to damage their children. Even today, when parents look toward the future for their children, they are sometimes admonished by others to be "realistic." While well-intentioned professionals or friends and relatives may be trying to protect parents from the potential disappointment and pain of hopes unfulfilled, parents often feel their own understanding of their child and the future is being criticized.

Events at a recent meeting served as powerful reminders about how much "reality" has changed and how little any of us may really know about what the future holds. For many years, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have worked to encourage the participation of children and adults with disabilities in science and engineering. At a symposium at the annual AAAS meeting this year, a number of gifted young adults, who happen to have disabilities, and some college faculty members described efforts at major universities to facilitate the participation of students with disabilities in scientific and engineering programs. These individuals made it very clear that it is "realistic" for people with disabilities to be scientists and engineers and that to exclude a student with a disability from science- and/or engineering-related educational programs is discrimination. Nonetheless, AAAS leaders report that many children with disabilities continue to be discouraged from participating in high-school courses in biology, chemistry or physics -- because it is unrealistic!

One presentation at the AAAS meeting dramatized this issue. As a result of an automobile accident, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) in an advanced degree program in micro-biology became a person with a physical disability. When this young man was ready to resume his graduate studies, questions were raised about his ability to complete his research mixing chemicals, preparing biological specimens or performing other scientific tasks in traditional ways because of his limited use of his hands and arms. However, under the guidance of dedicated faculty members with a long-term interest in accessibility to scientific activities for people with disabilities, designing a research laboratory environment for the microbiology graduate student became the graduate project of a student in an industrial design program.

Some in the audience suggested that this could have been done more easily by employing another student (without a disability) to serve as a laboratory assistant to carry out the instructions in the microbiologist-to-be. While such an approach may well have been possible, using the individualized equipment created by the design student, the microbiologist was able to carry out his laboratory work on his own. When a member of the audience questioned whether doing the laboratory work independently was worth all the effort, another member of the audience -- a well-known inventor who happens to be disabled and whose speech can be difficult for some to understand -- reminded everyone of the importance of a scientist's active participation in his or her experimentation to the scientific process of understanding and discovery.

This example of actual participation in the process of scientific discovery can be applied to many fields of endeavor and to many aspects of day-to-day human experience. Learning via participation is familiar to everyone. Everyone knows that to master the challenges of day-to-day social interaction as well as to master the complexities of scientific fields -- or music or art or medicine or sports or drama or carpentry or cooking -- requires active participation and practice.

In recent years, we have reported many examples of how modern technology can assist a child or adult to maximize his or her potential. However, the most powerful changes have been in attitudes -- and many more people believe we have just begun to see the potential for individuals with disabilities.

When children or adults with disabilities or their loved ones suggest something that may appear too unrealistic, let us all consider the potential for reality to change via new attitudes, ever-increasing accessibility, wondrous technology and, most of all, an openness to listen and a readiness to try.
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Title Annotation:about the abilities of disabled children
Author:Klein, Stanley D.; Schleifer, Maxwell J.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:"Meetings are always unpleasant for us": family stress from parent-professional conferences.
Next Article:1992 Summer Program Award winners.

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