I met a man this weekend at the Easter Seals Regatta that told us that having a special class for kids with intellectual disabilities in his school as a kid fundamentally changed they way he viewed people with disabilities because they were ‘included’ insomuch that they were there in the same halls as he was.
I remember the same thing when I was a kid. I befriended a girl named Jenny when I was probably 7 or 8, close to the age Sebastian is now. She was in a wheelchair and I remember her pale skin and white blonde hair. I remembered her blue lips. Thinking back she was probably on oxygen sometimes but I don’t remember seeing it. She came to our class on special occasions and was probably in our specialist classes. I really liked talking to her. Then one day she wasn’t there anymore. No one told us why. I think I thought she died.
I am 38 years old. Three decades ago kids with disabilities were in our schools but not in our classrooms. Today, in Toronto, they aren’t even in our schools. With the exception of 9 schools in the TDSB (out of hundreds; 451 elementary, 110 secondary) that have a classroom which I imagine is similar to the one that Jenny attended at my elementary school over 3 decades ago.
Kids that have never met Sebastian before might stare because they have never seen a child in a wheelchair in their classroom or in their halls at school. They might have some questions that never get answered because they will never meet kids like Sebastian during their education. They will become adults that will run companies that do not hire adults with disabilities because they don’t know how to accommodate them in the workplace. They will become adults in government positions that make decisions for people with disabilities without the knowledge or experience of anyone with a disability.
Let’s stop pretending that the current system of segregation is ok. Let’s stop blaming it on lack of funding and remember that adults who don’t include send a message to kids that they don’t have to either. Oh, that kid with autism? He can stay home until the graduation ceremony is over. How about that child with Down’s syndrome that would do better participating as an audience member rather that in the class play. (Yes; I read that story too but can’t find it to link). Those teachers? They never had kids with disabilities in their class either. But they should know better.
Maybe the special school will have better programs for Sebastian’s physical needs. Maybe they will better understand and implement the technology he needs to both learn and communicate. But what his sister is learning? That her brother has to go to a different school than her. A special school. Where everyone else is like her brother. And that is not ok.
Sebastian has attended a day camp this summer (and last) that is outdoors with a music and arts focus. It’s for ages 6-18 and it’s also integrated. Sebastian is making friends with kids of all different abilities, including some without a disability at all. At the end of the first camp session (2 weeks each session and he’s attending 2), one girl, his age, hugged him in his chair and said ‘ I wish Sebastian and I could have a play date.’ Her mom was surprised. So was I. She said, ‘Well sure, why not?’ So we exchanged emails. I don’t know if our schedules will mesh in the last two weeks of summer. But that’s not the point. I know that this girl will grow up to include others. Imagine what society looked like if every child had a similar opportunity to meet and befriend kids ‘like Sebastian’. To laugh with him. Kick a ball with him. Play a game on the computer with him. Swim in the pool with him. Read a book with him. Ride a bike with him. Crush garlic with him!