I am currently at war with my school over a really silly, stupid issue. But it does go to a core culture of discrimination against people who have disabilities that is pervasive all through society. I’ll put off blogging the current battle for a bit but go ahead and blog one that took place during my first year with an administration long gone.
In 2000, I was part of a room with 2 other teachers and 6 paras. It was a huge operation, but I saw even then how the students and teachers were marginalized to the remote outskirts of school life and culture. A room that was well-suited for teaching the most severely autistic students (i.e. no windows, mirrors and noise) was taken and given to the next door vocational teacher. We were told that this was temporary until they got industrial certification. That was 8 years ago and it was never given back.
While the health occupations room next door had a fully equipped handicapped accessible bathroom, our students had to go all the way to the other end of the building to use a special restroom by the gym. The closest wheelchair accessible drinking fountain was on the opposite side of the building from the gym through another set of double doors. By the time a wheelchair student went through all that to get a drink, he would need another one by the time he/she got back!
Then we got a student who needed to be changed and catheterized 2x and the only place we had was our little computer room on a computer table. The administration at the time wanted the school nurse to have no part in catherizing this student.
It was an appalling situation. I had fire in my gut from just having my own son diagnosed with a form of autism. So it was that I filed a section 504 complaint against the entire administration listing how they were seemingly and actively discriminating against these students. And this was done without the considerable knowledge of disabilities and the law that I have today. But it did get everyone’s attention. We ended up meeting with the county special education director to address the complaints. Notably missing from that meeting were the principal and associate principal who were the ones who I had the biggest beef with. The principal retired and the associate didn’t talk to me for a year. And that was only after one of my students kicked in the shin. We ended up making peace once she darkened my door and saw what I was doing and who I was doing it with. She was a lot more supportive then.
I wish I could say that I was totally victorious in that war. I had to wage this war for several years. We got a changing table and a place to catheterize and change our student…6 months after I filed the complaint. The nurse was available to use whenever I needed simply because I forced the issue and defied administrative directives not to get the nurse involved.
The room that was taken was never returned, but we no longer require the space. They remodeled our restroom 3 years later when a parent finally raised a ruckus with considerable support from me. Accessible drinking fountains were installed about the same time.
My reputation for being willing to fight became widely known and I found I didn’t have to do it is as much. But I also think I became somewhat complacent. I was willing to compromise and avoid rocking the boat. There is something to be said for being politically skilled in order to get what you want.
At heart, I am generally an avoider when it comes to conflict. However, if I am forced to fight, I fight to win. And once my ire gets ignited to the boiling point, I appeal to the William T. Sherman school of thought. Basically, if I’m going to war, I’m going make conflict with me so unpleasant that you won’t want to do it again very soon.
And it has been too long since I’ve gone after the culture of discrimination. There really is a rampant culture of discrimination that exists in the larger culture as well as the school culture. Sometimes government regulations help but often times they hurt. No Child Left Behind put special emphasis on students with disabilities, however it also stigmatized those students and the teachers who teach them. If you look at the movement towards paying teachers on the basis of student test scores, this inherently creates a hostile atmosphere against every student who has a disability that slows them down. And teaching the students that I teach who do not take the standardized tests pretty much means that I can not apply for Georgia’s Master Teacher program. It is no wonder that students that are slower sense the culture of hostility and drop out. It is also no wonder that many of the teachers who teach special education follow suit and move on to other fields thus resulting in the highest turnover rate among any group in teaching.
If there is a problem or a need, it seems to only get addressed when it affects the regular education population. If you are a special education teacher, you are the one who is going to be moved, marginalized, and put off. Your classroom will be the most uncomfortable, your supply budget will be the smallest, your computer will be the oldest, your equipment will barely function. If there is a spare closet, basement, trailer or dungeon, that is where you will be teaching. It will be somewhere that is unsuitable for the regular kids and yet perfectly fine for you.
Those of you who have been teaching special education for any length of time know of what I speak. It happens pretty much all the time, and everywhere I’ve taught, special education has been relegated to the fringe, outskirts and outposts.
So when I consider this pervasive culture of repression it becomes pretty obvious to me that total integration is the only solution. The only way to gain equal rights is to be in-your-face militant about it because otherwise people will be all content in their little comfort zones. Yes, my students are disruptive. So are all the other students. But I am sick and tired of us being pushed to the back of the bus every time a disability is inconvenient. Anyone can teach a “normal” student who is always compliant. They often learn in spite of what teachers do. But it’s the exceptional students who demand more expertise and skill. Those are the students who need to make the most gains and who need the most attention. The problem is not that my students can’t learn. The problem is that no one wants to put forth the resources (money) needed to pay someone to teach them the way they need to be taught. In order to make any sort of gain, they need 1:1 intensive teaching. And no public school is going to pay for 30 hrs/week of 1:1 instruction for a student with severe disabilities who will only make minimal gains with that sort of dedicated effort.
So what’s the use of total integration? It’s to help educate the rest of the school population about disabilities and tolerance. Right now, our non-integration serves to sustain the current climate where discrimination and oppression are the norm.