Perhaps you were thinking that this was going to be about ramps and accessible parking. You would not be wrong in that assumption but it is not the focus of our rendezvous in the blogosphere.
You see, I have been a special education classroom teacher for 12 years and I’ve seen some great examples of schools including students with disabilities. I have also seem some abysmal examples of so-called “inclusion”. Equal access, to me, means more than having enough room for wheelchairs to roll around or an extra spot in the back of a classroom.
So take it from me, if you are a parent of a child with a disability (even the more hidden ones), be prepared to ask your school staff how they are going to address these issues.
1. How will my child have access to the general curriculum?
If you child has a disability, particularly an intellectual disability or autism, chances are they are in a special education classroom for part or most of the day. This also means that there are multiple grade levels that the classroom teacher has to teach. How is your child’s teacher supposed to cover all of the required material with such a range of grade levels?
Good question right? In most cases the special education classrooms are using an alternate curriculum and working with alternate standards. Depending on how well the school district trains their teachers on how to implement this curriculum (and typically the teachers have to come up with it on their own) will impact how much access your child will have to what everyone else in the school is learning.
Ask your child’s teacher and special education administration if special education student and general education ever learn together in shared spaces. You can remind them (in case they didn’t know already) that over 30 years of research has shown that all students learn better when they are together (disabled and non-disabled peers) and given the necessary supports. They might even ask you how you found out such wonderful information. You can say you heard it here first.
2. How will my child have access to school wide activities?
In a typical school community there are many events that are planned for the whole student body to participate. It is also commonplace for students with disabilities to be left out of the planning of these events. Usually through no fault of their own the organizers of the program will not ask special education staff what they need for their students to enjoy or be included in the festivities. Special educators and parents of children with special needs to need to advocate for their kiddos and tell the planning committees what they need.
You can share with them resources like the videos from Kids Included Together (KIT) that will help any event committee how to plan for students with disabilities and/or complex communication needs. It would be great for you to preview them so you know how to advocate for what your specific child needs.
In addition to this, be clear with the special education teacher to let you know when certain school wide activities are coming up on the calendar. You know your child the best and what they will need in order to succeed in a particular environment. Most schools have events listed on a paper or web based calendar.
3. Will there be any environmental barriers my child will have to overcome?
Here is where we will talk briefly about accessible parking and ramps. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA is celebrating its 25th anniversary by the way) things like bathrooms and parking and getting in and out of buildings have become much better but there is a difference between having the bare minimum and a well thought out building using the principles of Universal Design. There is obviously more to this that applies to just wheelchair users. Environmental barriers include visual stimulation, noise level and other sensory issues.
Make sure to talk to your child’s teacher and school staff about how they are addressing the unique issues that impact your child. The more communication with the school staff about their needs the better. And please do not buy the argument of “they will just have to deal with it.” A student’s environment can be a huge barrier to learning or participating in the school community. You don’t need to go overboard to accommodate your child. You only need to be honest with their teacher about what they need.
4. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child. You are your child’s first teacher and the school staff must take you seriously.
There is always the risk of the special education staff thinking that you are a high maintenance parent. But listen to me when I tell you that it is better for you to advocate for your child and experience a little resistance than it is to blindly accept everything the school staff says is best for your kiddo.
Bottom line: You know your child the best. Decisions about your child’s education are not determined solely by the school it is team effort. Never forget that. Hopefully these questions have given you something to think about for your child’s education. Thanks for your time and attention.
Tim Villegas is the Founder and Curator-At-Large for Think Inclusive, an education website dedicated to inclusive schools and communities for all. Follow him on Twitter @think_inclusive or on Facebook.