Charlie has always been in a special education classroom and was only minimally included in classes with “typical” children, but, by being in a mainstream school, he did have some (if limited) chances to interact with other children and to be part of the life of school in our community. But when he entered middle school and had to contend with the hormonal changes of adolescence, we had — very sadly — to agree, Charlie needed to attend a separate school for autistic children.
Charlie has indeed thrived at the county autism center he now attends. The school is housed in a large and recently built facility, with its own gym and swimming pool (though students can’t use it too regularly, due to the need for lifeguards and other safety concerns). When a child has a severe behavior problem, there are plenty of trained staff on hand and, too, there are no stares. It’s a school for children with behavior issues, communication and cognitive disabilities, extremely sensitive sensory systems, and sometimes things happen. When my son was in the middle school of the town we used to live in, he was essentially segregated, as he spent almost the entire day, including lunch, in one small classroom. In his current school, he eats in the cafeteria and has music, art and Adapted Physical Education a couple of times of week. At the middle school, he couldn’t participate in music or art as he had in elementary school, because his needs were so far — were too different — from those of the other 6th, 7th and 8th graders.
My son has a lot of neurological challenges and, especially during his adolescence and teenage years, a school placement as understanding and accepting as the one he’s in has been the right answer. Outside of school, my husband and I do as much as we can to give Charlie opportunities to participate in mainstream society.
For many other students with disabilities, placement in a separate school amounts to segregation and limits their learning and other opportunities severely. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities must receive a “free and appropriate education” in the “least restricted environment,” in a school setting that least limits their opportunities for social and other interactions. However, too often — as in the case of my son at the middle school — a mainstream setting is in effect a separate one, despite what a school district claims.When grappling with the question of separate schools or mainstream placements, the one issue we have to keep at the forefront is: Are mainstream schools and those who oversee them truly making real accommodations for students with disabilities or just creating programs that suit their budgets, but not what students need?
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Photo of child with a cochlear implant by bjornknetsch
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