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Educational excellence for all.

For children with disabilities to have positive experiences within the regular school system, we must insist both that our children be part of this school system, and that the regular school system be a place where any? ordinary child can learn. We must remember that every issue affecting students in general also affects students with disabilities. A mother who wants a child with a disability to have access to a regular chemistry class may have to help her child fight the school's preconceived notions that the child is unsuited to learn chemistry. She may also have to advocate for necessary accommodations which will enable the child to participate fully in the lab work of the class. But before she begins lobbying for the school to meet her child's special needs, she may need to fight for something even more basic: she may have to join with other parents to oppose budget cuts which would eliminate chemistry from the school curriculum altogether.

Gains in access for students with disabilities will be nothing to celebrate unless we also succeed in improving education for all students. Other educational advocacy groups have done a poor job of reaching out to advocates for students with disabilities. We must show them that we have a common cause.

We also need to focus on defining the essential role of schools. All parents have the right to expect that schools will provide a safe and accepting environment where their children can acquire the academic skills needed to go on to higher education or gainful employment. A school's mission is no different when we are considering education for students with disabilities. All that must be added is educational accessibility.

Educational accessibility means removing architectural barriers and supplying large print textbooks to visually impaired students. It means providing a student with a learning disability with the one-on-one instruction he or she may need to learn math.

Children with similar disabilities should not be grouped together in a single class, but still need opportunities to get to know each other. This could be done in a variety of ways, depending on the age-level and interest of the students. A school might offer afterschool recreational activities--such as adaptive sport programs--oriented towards kids with disabilities. Students with disabilities could be invited to work together on specific projects. For example, students who enjoy working with computers might want to produce a disability awareness booklet to give to classmates and teachers. Others might want to put on an assembly for the school on a theme which may not necessarily be disability-related. Programs where older students with disabilities act as mentors to younger students--helping them both with their school work and with their relationships-might be especially useful. High school students might appreciate being given a space where they can meet to discuss common concerns and work on the disability issues of their choice. These activities would help alleviate the isolation that some children with disabilities may feel without segregating them from the school as a whole. It is crucial that participation in all these activities be entirely voluntary, and that students without disabilities be welcome to join in.

I believe, however, that the successful inclusion of students with disabilities into school systems will be impeded if we insist that schools deal with all of a child's "problems." It may be unrealistic and ultimately counterproductive to ask that a school not only teach a child to read, but also teach him or her to walk.

We cannot afford to take the risk of under-educating our children. In this computer age, the inability to use verbal symbols may be a bigger obstacle to employment than the inability to walk or even speak. If a particular child's education is fragmented to include therapeutic goals (which may or may not be achievable), the focus will be on the child's differences and attention may be diverted away from his or her actual education. Students and their parents often feel that a school is inappropriately, and quite possibly incompetently, involved in aspects of the student's life which they would prefer to handle outside of the educational setting where it will not detract from the child's learning.

Of course, the state has a duty to help children obtain any therapy needed to minimize a disability. It is also true that schools need to consult with different types of professionals in dealing with accessibility issues. The time has come, however, to consider whether occupational therapy, physical therapy and other rehabilitative services can be more appropriately and effectively provided in a setting where they will not interfere with education.

It is not easy to deal with these issues. We need to be open to new ideas and examine our own prejudices and preconceptions. We need to ask whether concepts which may have been considered progressive in the seventies are still relevant to the nineties. Above all, we must change the focus of the debate from mainstreaming versus special education to defining "excellent education" and assuring that this excellent education is accessible to all children.

Lisa Blumberg is a coporate lawyer for Aetna Life Insurance and lives in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has cerebral palsy and has attended regular schools and classes all her life. She graduated with a bachelor's degree from Wellesley College and a law degree from Harvard Law School. She is a member of the Exceptional Parent's Editorial Advisory Board and is a frequent contributor to the magazine.
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Title Annotation:inclusion of handicapped children in regular school activities
Author:Blumberg, Lisa
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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