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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Education: A Total Failure

I hate the term special education. To me, there is nothing special about special education. When I was a child they did not call it special education. We had three groups of kids--the smart kids (blue birds), average kids (robins), and the dumb kids (sparrows). We kids all knew who was smart, average, and stupid. The names of pretty little birds was just sanitized window dressing. That window dressing would become and remains known as special education. Special education serves a purpose and does educate those kids deemed "special" as well as those considered "normal" or worse, "gifted". What is taught involves far more than what is deemed important in the classroom. In fact I would argue what takes place in the classroom is of secondary importance. Education puts us on a social path, it is a marker of what we are, will be, and can be. For people with a disability that path involves social negation--we are not defined by who we are but what we are not. What we are not is normal--normal as defined by an educational system that does not see potential but abnormality. We cannot walk. We cannot read. We cannot see. We cannot hear. We cannot learn at the socially prescribed rate. All we are told is what we cannot do. What we cannot do is bad. We are bad. Accordingly, our expectations are limited. We are taught not to expect equality. We do not expect an equal education. We do not expect to be treated with respect. Resentment to our very existence and any money spent on our education abounds. This message is delivered efficiently in secondary schools by our peers, other parents, teachers, the PTA, and administrators.

The clearest symbol of the failure to educate those with disabilities and all who are in some way different is the dreaded short bus. Ask any person who had a disability as a child and mention the short bus and you are sure to prompt a strong reaction. The short bus was supposed to represent progress. And amazingly it was progress. Prior to the passage of IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975 children with disabilities were not entitled to a public education. We were banned from public schools for a host of dubious reasons. People such as myself who used a wheelchair for instance were deemed a fire and safety hazard. While the law stated we were entitled to an education we were and to a degree remain segregated. The easiest means of segregation was rooted to the transportation system. Yes, the dreaded short bus is effectively used to this day to segregate students with disabilities. For example, the public school my son attended in the wealthy suburbs of New York has one bus with a wheelchair lift--one. Let me repeat that--one bus circa 2011 or 36 years after IDEA was passed into law (20 years after the ADA). On that short bus every single child with a disability in the district is transported to and from school and on class trips. My son would not be caught dead on that short bus the kids call "the retard bus". Now that is is an education! Children have been taught segregation is the norm. The normal kids rule. The normal kids have power. Kids with a disability are different, special. Being different is judged in relation to the norm. The norm does not include people with a disability. Special education, the short bus and the utter lack of social integration is about establishing lifelong boundaries. We people with a disability are on the outside looking in. The fabric of society does not include people with disabilities. We are broken, sick, wheelchair bound--anything but normal. Lenny Davis has eloquently written about this in Enforcing Normalcy.

The consequences of our failure to teach all children that people, young and old alike, with a disability are equal has profound social and economic consequences. 66% of Americans with a disability are unemployed. A third of people with a disability live at or below the poverty line. Only a small percentage of people with a disability have a college education. An even smaller number, a microscopic percentage, have an advanced degree such as mine. This is a costly failure. It is a failure that leads to social invisibility. We people with a disability live at the margins of social respectability. We were not accepted in schools and we are not accepted in the work force. Our presence is not required or even expected. In this era of draconian budget cuts in education and services for people with disabilities these are grim times. We may be saving money now but I wonder about the social consequences. I wonder how many people with a disability turn their failure to receive an education or a secure a job into self loathing--a personal failure. It is understandable to direct failure inward--I still vividly recall when I was first disabled I was stunned at how differently I was treated. I felt as though I had the plague. I felt as though I was the same person but I sure as hell was not treated as I once was. This caused me to withdraw from others. When I went to college I spent way too much time drinking and smoking pot. I partied hard but I also worked hard at academics--something I was inherently good at. Somehow I knew that education was the only thing that could save me from a life of despair. I was also blessed with outstanding parents who supported and fought right along side me against social injustice. In retrospect these two variables, an outstanding education and supportive parents, are what successful people with a disability have in common. Getting an equal education is very difficult for any person with a disability and good parents are a matter of luck. I was especially lucky--indeed I joke that I hit the parent lottery. But I did have to fight for an education. Sadly, that fight for an education is something people with a disability must still undertake. That fight is different from what I endured. No person is barred from school and told they are a fire hazard. But this does not mean bigotry and exclusion are absent. That fight today entails a lack of equal transportation, socially sanitized and accepted segregation, deep budget cuts as well as resentment "normal" kids somehow are neglected.

The above has been on my mind since i read Jonathan Mooney's wonderful book The Short Bus. This book is filled with delightful stories in a wickedly twisted way. It like a cripple Kerouac's On the Road. I highly recommend this book for it does what few books ever do--make you laugh and think at the same time. How this book made me yearn to travel. As soon as my wound is healed I am going to hit the road. Where i am going, I have no idea. But go I will for travel is akin to a real special education. And if there is one thing I still yearn for it is education.


Cait the Wild Guitar said...

Bill, you bring up a wonderful point that society is still trying to sweep under the rug, and as Confucius said, "He who sweep things under rug, get lumpy rug."
This situtation is not only untenable but unsustainable. It's the proverbial elephant in the drawing room of polite society. Everyone knows it's there, because it's a hard problem to ignore, but they're doing their best, because no one in so-called polite society wants to be the first to say, "You know, we really ought to do something about this elephant." Another fact that I'm sure polite society is trying its best to forget is that the elephant can only be ignored for so long before it goes on the rampage & can no longer be ignored. I think we're at that point now.
As FDR said, "History will not ask us if we have added a little to the fortunes of those who have much, but if we have done much to add to the fortunes of those who have little."
Education is yet another issue where the struggles of people with disabilities seem strikingly similar to the struggles of feminists. When my grandmother was 16, she was encouraged to drop out of high school and go to work at a local flower shop. After all, it was during the Great Depression, her family was poor, and they needed all of their money to send her older brother to college so that he could get a good job and support his family. No one thought that she might need (or want) a good education; they all expected that she would marry a man with a good education, bear his children, cook his meals, clean his house, and serve his every whim. No one ever suggested that they might save money for her education, because she was a woman. My grandmother was, nonetheless, a very smart person, & I always wondered what wonderful gifts she could have given to society if anyone could have been bothered to give her a proper education. I can't help but wonder what amazing discoveries in a myraid of fields are being left by the wayside by denying proper education to people with disabilities. Have we ignored the future scientist destined to cure cancer, AIDS, or find a cure for the common cold? Have we taken the person who will revolutionize the reclamation & treatment of water to secure a safe & sustainable supply for all of the world's people & confined them to a nursing home where their ideas will never reach the rest of us? Have we left uneducated the future physicist destined to solve the problems of cold fusion?
The private Waldorf School I attended as a child taught that every life and every person has value, and that every person deserves respect, because we're all the same inside, no matter what we look like in the outside. I think it's time for more of that kind of thinking.

The Untoward Lady said...

Social justice, hell. I'll bet if you were denied your quality education you'd be dependent on welfare right now. I'll bet you'd be taxing the public coffers for a hell of a lot more than the cost of your education!