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Why I’m Glad My Son Has No School Today

Why I’m Glad My Son Has No School Today

My son Charlie has the day off from school today. Such a change in his usual routine of Monday = school is never easy for Charlie, who prefers—indeed depends and relies on—routines to give him a sense that things are right in the world. Long weekends are, therefore, not something that we, or he, look forward to.

But I’m glad Charlie has the day off today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. In his old school district, where Charlie was in a self-contained autism classroom in a large public middle school, he did not get the day off. Raised in Oakland and Berkeley—one the home of the Black Panthers, the other of the Free Speech Movement, and much much else—I was appalled that our large central Jersey school district did not recognize MLKJ Day as a holiday. My son now attends a public center in which all the children are on the autism spectrum or have disabilities. And you can be sure to note that I was pleased to note that Charlie has the day off.

Charlie’s current academic curriculum focuses on pre-vocational and daily living skills. He doesn’t have classes in language arts, social studies, science. We’ve been trying to think how to explain MLKJ Day to him and one thing I am saying is that, it’s really because of the work of Dr. King that Charlie is able to go to school. That Charlie—a child who in a previous not-too-long-ago generation would not only have never set foot into a public school, but who would also have been institutionalized at a young and tender ager—has the right to a free and appropriate public education.

Autistic self-advocate Dora Raymaker has written about autistic rights, disability rights, and human rights.

While autism makes us different, autistic rights is really about those things we all need, autistic or not, disabled or not, minority or not: food and shelter, respect and love, and empowerment to live our own lives in freedom, happiness, and health.

I would only add that autistic rights and disability rights are civil rights. Individuals on the autism spectrum have, as Dora points out, been denied the right to: ethical treatment in science and research; equal opportunities in education; equal opportunities in employment; acceptable living conditions and access to support; fair treatment in the media; and inclusion in policy about autism. The issues of pressing concern to individuals on the spectrum are, Dora writes, “those faced by all severely marginalized populations.”

My son Charlie, and students with disabilities, are ensured a free and appropriate education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While the Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations, it does not directly provide for the education of children with disabilities. Go here for an overview of the laws which preceded IDEA: I can’t say how much my son’s learning, not to mention his life, relies on this law. Charlie requires one-on-one teaching by teachers and therapists who are highly trained to understand and address his particular cognitive, sensory and other needs, as well as his challenges in communication. As I’ve noted, he is not studying the “usual” curriculum of “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.” The hope is that—as with other students—he will able to get a job and live on his own (to the extent that he can) as a result of his education. I cannot say often enough how his life and ours are better and simply good because he is able to be taught, because there is a law specifying this right.

It’s not easy to teach Charlie. He, and students with many needs like him, require special services and staff. These require extra funding than are needed for teaching students without Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Also, due to his disability and his differences, public school districts too often find that providing all that a student with disabilities needs means that more resources are being allocated to a child who is not perhaps going to “succeed” in the ways that we tend to think of, such as in winning academic awards or on athletic teams, or by getting into highly-ranked colleges. For my son, “success” can mean making it through a school day without having any major “challenging behaviors” and being able to tell his teacher that he’s feeling anxious.

Charlie’s right to an education is no less than that of any child. Our efforts to get him that education have made my husband and I (both of us are college professors) again and again aware of what “education” really means and about why it is Charlie’s right to be educated, to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. This is not simply a dream that we have for Charlie, but a goal that we seek to make happen every day of our life with him.

I do think often of many of Dr. King’s words, if I may quote from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

I think about “why we can’t wait” to get Charlie that education (he is still young but growing up fast, and his mind is hungry; he needs to be taught, he wants to learn). I think about why our dream of Charlie learning as much as he can should not only be our hope, but that of our whole society, if our society means to do right and to be just towards all of its members, to each and every one of its citizens. Just last Friday, January 15th, a new law was passed in New Jersey where we live which expands the state’s antidiscrimination law so that “no one who has autism and related neurological disorders is denied access to libraries, restaurants, gyms, pools, theaters and other public places. It also guarantees equal access to housing and jobs.” All states in the US will one day, we hope, pass such a law.

So this is what we’re telling Charlie about why he does not have school today, this Monday, the 18th of January, 2010. He doesn’t have school today because it’s a day to think about, to remember, to honor the person who helped lead the way for those who are “different” to have a seat wherever they’d like on the bus; to have a place in school.

 

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Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day March (2003) from the Seattlle Municipal Archives
Kristina Chew, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Classics at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. Since 2005, she has been blogging about autism, disabilities, and education, previously at Autism Vox and now at We Go With Him, a daily journal about life with her 12 1/2 year old son Charlie.

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57 comments

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3:13AM PST on Jan 27, 2010

thanks

7:25PM PST on Jan 24, 2010

This was deeply touching. The rest of us, I think, tend to forget about or overlook the autistic because they can't talk to us in ways we'd like.

11:39AM PST on Jan 24, 2010

Thanks for the article!

2:24PM PST on Jan 22, 2010

that is very sweet and touching. thank you for opening up your personal life to the readers, myself included.

4:45PM PST on Jan 20, 2010

thanks

11:56PM PST on Jan 19, 2010

Thank you for sharing your experiences.

5:49PM PST on Jan 19, 2010

really good story

2:42PM PST on Jan 19, 2010

I am glad your son Charlie had no school too! I went to elementary school with Dr. Martin Luther King's two sons Marty and Dexter in the 1960's. I am white and they were among the first to integrate my almost entirely white school. Dr. King bought papers and magazines at my father's bookstore/news stand because my Dad's store was integrated. No whites only signs there! MLK could have accepted the status quo and lived an anonymous life of quiet desperation at "the back of the bus" but he stepped out and demonstrated nonviolent courage that inspired a little red-haired girl like me. He was willing to suffer false arrests, jail, beatings, and all sorts of abuse and to give his very life eventually doing what he knew was the right thing. Why can't we all live like that every day? Martin Luther King is a hero to me today and every day.

10:36AM PST on Jan 19, 2010

Good for you an for your family, and like you said thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King jr. for all his L O V E !!!!!

4:07AM PST on Jan 19, 2010

Well said, Kristina! However, should not the U.S.A. devote much more funding towards educational, health and welfare projects rather than wasting resources upon trying to bully or bribe the world into accepting its sadly flawed political and economic systems? Then your disadvantaged sons and daughters would all receive sympathetic treatment. MLK certainly made a vast breakthrough, for which no recognition can be truly adequate, but the follow-up has been very slow.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches and writes about ancient Greek and Latin and is Online Advocacy and Marketing... more
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