Tommy is in the second row. Of course, Aaron is the red head in the middle of the picture who refused to look at the camera.
My last post Teachers| Inclusion or Segregation started an interesting discussion. It reminded me of the letter I wrote to the Principal of Hopewell Junior School:
Letter to Principal on Last Day of Jr. High School
June 6, 1990
Principal, Hopewell Junior School
Lakota School District
West Chester, Ohio
Dear Dr. Taylor,
Recently my nephew, Robert, started laughing hysterically when I mentioned his cousin; Aaron was going to be on the school cross-country team. “What’s Aaron going to do? Bite and push all the kids at the starting line so he can win?”
I was deeply hurt but tried to explain it wasn’t all about the winning but the trying that was important. Robert was shocked! “But why would you even try if you knew you couldn’t win?”
Different Kinds of Winners and Losers
I explained there were different kinds of “winning.” Aaron has autism but he also has the need for belonging to a group and regular exercise. Robert stared blank-faced, and after several more minutes I changed the subject. To this gifted 14 year old, who has above-average good looks, athletic ability and intelligence, this made no sense. Sigh.
Robert, Tommy (Aaron’s brother) and their peers are the people on whom Aaron will always be dependent. They are the next generation of parents, professionals, neighbors and…coaches.
The experiences and value systems they are developing in school, in the community, on the cross country teams–right this minute—will directly affecting Aaron’s future.
Robert has never gone to public school, run on an inclusive cross-country team or been friends with people with physical and intellectual challenges. Obviously, even his experiences with his cousin have made little impact. I think that is a deficit in his education. It will impact his future as a member of his family and community. It’s not a visible “D” on his report card, but it is an invisible “deficit” and loss in his life.
Who are the Winners and Losers?
How do you teach that the person who comes in first is not always the biggest winner? Can children learn it takes courage for not just children with challenges, but for all the boys and girls who finish near the end?
WINNERS are sometime those who RISK losing…being laughed at…coming in last.
Learning and Teaching Values
Each nation decides what is normal, average and gifted. They decide who are the winners and the losers.
Recently, we’ve been stunned by news accounts which demonstrate how the values in Iran, China, and Russia are different from our own. We have also witnessed incredible changes in philosophy, public opinion and policy. Values are fluid, changing and dependent on multiple factors.
Shaping those values and rights is something we do every day, consciously, or unconsciously. Sometimes value changes are dramatic like the Berlin Wall coming down–winners. Sometimes value changes are dramatic like Tiananmen Square-winners/losers depending on your point of reference.
The rights of citizens are gifts from a nation to their citizens. These rights and freedoms cannot be taken for granted.
The tragedy of having a child with a disability has nothing to do with the child, a syndrome, disease or label. The tragedy comes from the struggle with people in your family, community, country who decide if they will accept and support your family or rejected and isolate you.
Whether the differences are overlooked or emphasized. Whether the winners are only the ones who come in first.
“But Wait until Junior High”
When we went to court in 1979 (Cincinnati Public Schools) to allow Aaron to go to the public school, the doomsayers predicted, “MAYBE it would work in elementary school…But wait until Junior High!”
The teachers care only about academics, the sports are so competitive, the kids are so cruel–during lunch they will put drugs in your child’s milk”
They hatefully wanted to frighten us into accepting the segregated school and a segregated life.
Last Day of Junior School
Today is our last day at Hopewell Junior School and happily those predictions are laughable. Thanks to the vision and caring of the administration, staff, teachers–especially Miss Linda Lee–and the other students in the school Aaron and his classmates have had a great experience.
They are the first class of people with significant disabilities who have been able to attend a regular public school. It has been a new experience for everyone and it has been a success.
Aaron has had many opportunities for learning functional skills which will help him live, work and participate in the community. But more importantly, he has had opportunities to be “included as a regular student.”
There were some who wondered why a kid, who can hardly talk, much less sing, would practice and perform on stage with the school chorus?
Why someone who has severe balance and flexibility problems would try to participate on the cross-county and track team?
They wonder if it be would have been safer if Aaron rode the “handicapped bus” with an extra aide, instead of the regular bus with his brother?
They will never understand why we hate Special Olympics?
These parents, students and community members can’t figure out what could Aaron possibly get out of an assembly, or six minutes in regular homeroom?
The answer to most of these questions then and now is really WE Don’t KNOW!
The schools are changing the future
Aaron has gifts, strengths and talents and when given opportunities for learning–determination and pride. We do have observations.
Each time a schoolmate says, “Hi” and forces Aaron to give eye contact, each time a teammate said, “Go Aaron, you can make it!” or gives him a high 5–it is a victory.
Each time they see Aaron make it over a creek or down a hill we celebrate.
Every time they see him complete his vocational job stacking juice cartons in the lunchroom, sorting the silverware, filling the pop machines–it is a value enhancing experience. Aaron can learn to do jobs, that if he didn’t do them, someone else would.
This year Aaron’s picture is in the yearbook next to his brother’s. He and Tommy’s picture is in also with the athletes for Cross Country and Track. A First!
A general education high school student cared enough to help Aaron participate in a bowling league. And then, he took him to the Eighth Grade Dance whose theme was “That’s What Friends are For.” A First!
Aaron’ name (granted it was a name stamp) was on the class t-shirt. A First!
Aaron got a school letter in cross country and track, including being in the team picture. A First!
Aaron got his first paycheck from his vocational training site, Grote bakery, allowing him to become a taxpayer. A jump-up-and-down first!
A whole lot of Learning
To me, these shifts in school philosophy, values and focus on inclusion are every bit as dramatic as the Berlin wall coming down.
In the current evolution to merge special and general education, to change special separate classes into a system of inclusive classes with support services for ALL children–the new ideas, opportunities, choices, risks and freedoms are truly exciting.
Hopewell Junior School has given Aaron and Tommy the chance to be winners. The chance to show that sometimes the biggest lessons are not just in the classroom.
Their success has been a victory.
Hopefully, in this human race, our world will become a better place because of the mix of people who grow up more fully with the experiences of community inclusion.
Thanks for your continued support. Thanks for making Hopewell—a Well of Hope.
The Ulrich Family
Epilogue: 20 years later
Junior High turned out to be one of the best times in Aaron and Tommy’s lives. They both had caring teachers who looked at each of their individual needs. I wish we could find out what memories the other students had of their time with Aaron and Tommy in cross-county, track, bowling, choir, gym… I bet they would have some funny stories. I wish them all well.
ps. We often think of how the students are going to grow up and be the next voters, taxpayers, citizens… but we often forget the school staff also evolves. Aaron’s teacher, Miss Lee went on to become a district supervisor and Dr. Taylor, the prinicpal, is the current Superintendent of Lakota. I like to think their experiences with Aaron and Tommy influence who they are today.
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,
Were kids with autism and severe disabilities included in your school? Do you have any thoughts to share? What do you think the future looks like?
A related story is What is Inclusion? plus, pictures of Aaron and Tommy at graduation.
Check out the graduation pictures of my two sons.
What’s the same? What’s different?
BACK to SCHOOL Article 3
To celebrate the new school year here are some of my favorite posts:
Article 1: Why Do We Go to School?
Article 2: Back to School| A New Year of Learning
What is Inclusion?
The concept of INCLUSION is both simple and complex.
It means being able to go to the same school your brothers and sisters go to. The same school that is on the realtor’s fact sheet, you know the one: “If you buy this house, here is the neighborhood school you go to.” That’s simple, right?
In 1980 in Ohio, when my son Aaron turned 5 and was eligible to go to school, because he had the label of autism and developmental disabilities, he and other children with IQs below 50 were legally excluded from public schools. That’s complex.
It all changed because of Federal Legislation, yea those dang Government laws everyone hates.
When you suffer from exclusion and segregation, those Federal rules and regulations save the day.
History Lessons: Past
When new schools were built in the 50s-60s-70s-80s, the old white schools became “negro” schools. When even more new schools were built for the white children (think baby boomers), then the children with disabilities were moved up into the schools vacated by the “negroes.”
Schools: White to Negro to Handicapped to Demolished
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975 and gave parents the right to a free appropriate public education, zero reject, related services, due process and the “least restrictive environment.”
At the time of the Neill Roncker and Aaron Ulrich due process hearings, the decrepit Dyer School was a handicapped-only school. Cincinnati Public Schools rented the school to the Hamilton County Board of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities for $1.00 a year (Roncker hearing).
Parents and local Board of Mental Retardation officials were happy to be able to move out of church basements into the discarded school. They were also thrilled to be building new segregated facilities, handicapped only, with local levy dollars.
That was our court battle–to be able to ride the bus, go to school, eat lunch with typical kids… in our neighborhood school–not a “handicapped-only” school.
Inclusion is a civil right
“Inclusion is a right, not a special privilege for a select few.” – Federal Court, Oberti vs Board of Education.
For information about the history of children with disabilities check out the Minnesota DD Planning council’s excellent resource, Parallels in Time 2
History Lessons| Inclusion Today
Here is a recent video about a young woman with the label of autism. You will see her general education teacher, her parent, her inclusion facilitator, the general music teacher but most of all you will see the future citizens of our country.
Here is a picture of inclusion. A picture of hope. (Thanks to Donna Owens, OCALI)
Definition of Inclusion
Giangreco (see Resources) has defined the criteria for inclusion:
Students go to the same school as their brothers, sisters, and neighbors;
They participate in the same environments as their peers (lunchroom, bus, playground, classrooms);
According to their IEP, the student has the extra supports they need to be successful (therapy, adapted curriculum materials, an aide, teacher inservice);
There should be a natural proportion of children with/without disabilities, (if 10% of students are on IEPs in a school–no more than 10% of the students in any one class should be on IEPs).
An Inclusive Graduation Ceremony
So did you see any similiarities and differences in the graduation pictures above?
Almost everything about Tommy and Aaron’s Graduation ceremonies were the same. At the time, Lakota High School was one of the largest high schools in the state. Tommy and Aaron both had HUGE graduating classes held at the University of Cincinnati. Both had cheering parents and friends.
The difference between Aaron’s school experience and his typical brother Tommy’s, is evidenced in their graduation pictures above.
Aaron didn’t have to go through a segregated graduation ceremony and earn the right or prove he was ready to go to the inclusive celebration.
We did prepare by considering what would Aaron need to be added or subtracted from the typical graduation experience.
In his case, Aaron needed an extra support person, his wonderful teacher Mr. Mike Valdini. And, what needed to be subtracted–the mortar board hat!
I like to think our early battles for inclusion help the young children today—all of them, with and without disabilities.
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,
It now seems like the concept of inclusion has been around forever. But like any civil rights movement, we often don’t move forward in a straight line. What are some of your experiences?
BACK to SCHOOL Article 2
Why Do We Go to School?
A New Year of Learning
This is one of my favorite stories–an updated article from when Aaron was 8 years old and Tommy 6. Enjoy!
It was the weekend before school began and Cincinnati was sweltering from a week of 90 plus temperatures with over 50% humidity.
And partially because most of our neighbors don’t have air conditioning, and partially because we enjoy each other’s company, all the moms were sitting on the porch steps waiting for the street lights to signal the time for baths, bedtime and the end of summer.
Several of the children were busy with final rehearsal for the “Ralph Avenue” version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Erin was the wicked queen, Allison the prince charming and the younger children Eric, Patrick, Tricia, and my son Tommy were assorted other characters.
The kids ran in and out of the yards wearing their winter caps with the tassels dropping over, trying to look like dwarfs.
After a while, the large cardboard box from Allison’s new stove changed from being used for the stage scenery for dwarfs to a cool hideout for cowboys.
Patrick’s mother was telling us a newspaper reporter stopped by her house to do an interview with “a new kindergartner.” It would be a three part series on Patrick’s impressions before school began, during in January, and a third article after in June.
The poor reporter had a time of it because every time she asked Patrick (5 yrs.) about the imminent kindergarten experience, Eric (6 years and a kindergarten veteran) would give his answer, including a heated discussion about, “Who would be picked for the cookie passer?”
It was so much fun to be watching the kids and hanging out with other mothers but the beginning of school is very traumatic for me because of our continuing problems with the special education school program for my son.
Aaron has the label of autism and severe intellectual disabilities. A new year signals the beginning of another year of battle for inclusion.
But maybe because it was too hot and maybe because I was surrounded by friends, I continued to sip my ice tea and enjoy the normal conversation of my neighbors.
Patrick said his favorite football team was the Jets. His brother Michael, age 3, noting the adults’ interest, announced his favorite team was “the helicopters.” Jets—helicopters, why not?
Tricia’s soccer team won every game last year with a very gentle and knowledgeable coach. This year they won their first game but the new coach yelled and screamed and was upsetting the team and their parents. The parents wondered if victory was worth the price?
Moments that make parenting fun
Tommy went for his school physical and when the nurse asked him to urinate into a cup he burst into tears.
I pointed to the counter and its rows of labeled cups and told him everyone—even grownups–had to do this.
Sobbing he said, “Okay—but I won’t drink it.”
Later he asked, “Mom, why do they need a toilet in there is everyone pees in a cup?”
My friends and I exchanged sale prices on jeans and problem solved about the best backpacks and gym shoes with shoelaces that didn’t need to be tied.
We laughed, reminisced about summer and shared the thunderstorm warnings.
Eric’s Mom passed out popsicles.
All this time Aaron was walking up and down following the crowd of “dwarfs” as they flitted from yard to yard. He didn’t get a lot of direct attention, yet he was part of the group. For a time they all put on football helmets and Aaron went over, knocked on them to hear the funny sounds and everyone giggled. Aaron got quite excited and even though he is tactily very defensive he allowed them to place the helmet on his head, for a minute anyway.
Tommy brought out his golf clubs and soon Eric and everyone tried a few swings hitting a large flowered ball. Once Aaron was too close and thoughtfully Patrick took his arm and helped him get out of the way and Eric adapted and shortened his swing.
Then the crowd was back down the street again. This time Aaron waited for the abandoned golf club. He bent over and balanced perfectly picking the club out of the grass. He began in his own way to hit the big plastic ball around the yard. Then he too lost interest and headed back down the street to find the other children.
Four years ago, the same day we moved into our home, a group of people on the other side of town filed a lawsuit to protect their neighborhood from the “danger’ of a proposed group home for people who were labeled mentally retarded. I remember my worry of meeting our new neighbors and their reactions. What would be their concerns, fears? Would they allow us into their community?
There have been awkward moments when Aaron would do something inappropriately. But then “normal” “regular” young children have their good and bad moments like the rest of mankind.
Now Aaron was just Aaron and each neighbor had worries about jobs, children, families—the usual. We were a part of their neighborhood, their community.
As the sky darkened and the parents began to gather up the toys, football helmets, golf clubs and the talk again turned toward getting the children to bed so they would be fresh for the first day of school, I couldn’t help but think of how children and adults learn.
We use our creativity for Snow White costumes and playing with discarded boxes. We use our problem solving skills to find sale priced jeans to stretch our budgets. We use skill development including repetitive drill and practice for playing soccer and for picking up golf clubs out of the grass. We build on our experiences and associations whether they are jets and helicopters, cups and drinking, or how we feel about people who are different than we are. We also learn from people, some of whom are rough coaches, some parents, some newspaper writers, and some—neighbors.
School may begin tomorrow but in our neighborhood a whole lot of learning happened tonight. And perhaps, just perhaps—because Eric and Pat and Tommy will grow up with their incidental learning, experiences, associations and relationships with Aaron, the years of battles for belonging, full inclusion and citizenship will be shortened and our war for acceptance will be won.
Sometimes the make-believe lessons of Snow White overlap with the real world lessons of our family. After all, wasn’t Snow White the one who sang: “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish for will come true.”
Keep believing, keep dreaming and a Happy School Year to All.
Has our dream of inclusion for all kids come true? Certainly more children now have the opportunity. Aaron, Neil Roncker, Jenni Wetzel, Julie McMahon–they were the first kids in the doors of the public schools in Greater Cincinnati. I believe with all my heart they touched the lives of their peers who are now grown and sending their own children off to school.
And some of these young parents became the doctors, teachers, bus drivers and parents of kids with special needs. Our lives really are all part of each other, all part of the circle of life. I hope this new generation feels better prepared. I hope the schools their children attend are also better prepared. I hope our communities are more welcoming to those who have differences.
What dreams are we still wishing for? What lessons are we still learning?
Please leave a comment so we can celebrate this new year of learning.
What are you thinking about as the school year begins?
Keep climbing–onward and upward.
All the best,
Why do we go to school?
Is it to go to magical places?
Is it to make friends?
Is it to keep kids off the streets?
Is it to give Mom and Dad a rest? Or someplace for the kids to go while she/he works?
Is it only to learn to read and write?
When our country was founded, education was generally for the male children of rich property owners. They were to prepare to become businessmen and the governors of the lower classes.
Jeffersonian Philosophy of Education
Is the reason we go to school the Jeffersonian concept that a democracy depends upon an educated population?
This philosophy teaches we need to learn so we can become knowledgeable voters, dedicated citizens and choose wise leaders who govern for the common good.
This makes sense to me, but if you listen to many of the current politicians and public media personalities they seem to suggest the purpose of the school is to teach everyone to think the same way?
And if you don’t, they will pull their children out of public school and either home school or put them in private schools where they can control the curriculum and the way people think.
They seem to think this is protecting their children from harm—these strange people and ideas would hurt their children.
But what about people who are different, including people with disabilities?
Measure of a Society
“The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.”
So, is part of the reason we go to school to learn how to live with society’s “most vulnerable citizens”? To learn about how we can all share the resources and problems of our common society?
To learn to care about others?
To learn to see strength in diversity?
To prepare ourselves and others to become one of those “most vulnerable citizens”?
Is the American school still the great melting pot that gives us all a common experience? and sees value in our diversity?
This is certainly the goal of inclusion. See related post, What is Inclusion?
If everyday ALL children go to the same schools, get to know each other on a personal level, share time on the playground and lunchroom and bus and in the classrooms–there are valuable lessons in just being together with people who are different than we are.
And maybe one of the lessons is–we are not so different–inside we are the same.
What do the history books say?
In the late 90s, I was teaching education majors who wanted to be teachers.
I took my Introduction to Exceptionalities classes to our university library which had a collection of textbooks being used in classrooms all over the country.
Their assignment was to examine one of the high school textbooks in American History, Problems in Democracy or World Histories and look for pictures or references to people with disabilities. Many of these college sophomores were able to find the same textbooks they used when they were in high school.
Out of the 20 different textbooks they evaluated, no textbook had more than four references to anything about disabilities.
The references, in a sentence or two, referred to:
Helen Keller was deaf and blind and traveled in the Wild West Show, President Roosevelt used a wheelchair, and the American with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. In several of the textbooks, an additional reference said, “deinstitutionalization caused many people who were mentally ill to become homeless” with a picture showing a man sleeping on a park bench. That was it! And the last message was not positive.
People with Disabilities are often Invisible People
People with disabilities have been basically excluded and invisible in the traditional curriculum.
In a culture that asks its children to “not stare,” and “beware of strangers” we have taught our children to ignore and avoid people with disabilities. Many churches only teach about praying for miracle cures and giving charity and alms to the “handicapped” (word from “cap in hand”). So, though there has been some progresss, it is not surprising our textbooks still avoid the whole conversation of disabilities and differences.
The increase in college “Disabilities Studies” majors and minors across the country is a strong beginning and step in the right direction. Kudos to those who are pioneers in this new movement. The recent Tribute to Ed Roberts is an example of people who care recognizing the contributions of great Americans to the freedom and inclusion of all.
Yet, I would bet if we repeated this textbook assignment today in 2013, there would still be a scarcity to references about people with disabilities and of all minorities; though I think the textbook companies are responding to some of the criticism.
What is the purpose of education?
So besides becoming informed citizens, what is the purpose of education, except to prepare each of us in the attitudes, vocational, domestic, community, and leisure skills we need to function successfully the 50-60-70 years of the rest of our lives?
How can we learn to make choices? To learn to ask questions? To learn to solve problems? To learn to work and live together? To learn about ourselves, our ways of making sense of the world? To learn about diversity?
Would our government officials act differently if they followed Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on education? If they went to school with people who had disabilities or had differences?
Schools and Parents
One teacher, one therapist may be great for a year or two but professionals come and go. The parent is the constant in a child’s life. We know our children the best and are the experts on our child’s likes and dislikes, their learning styles and behavior in the home and community. We know our child’s history better than any psychological profile that sits in the school office. We know our child is more than the words on their Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Our role as parent is a difficult one because we represent the continuity of our child’s life. We know their past, we are part of their journey. But are we willing to risk our children learning about diversity and differences?
There are many parents of children with disabilities who are afraid, it is understandable, but will that fear hurt our children and the next generation of citizens.
We know our neighbors, our community, the life our child has outside of school. Check out related story: A new year of learning. We can share our child’s dreams for the future and help them to come true.
Each day parents are challenged as “care managers” to insure cooperation and creativity among those who provide service to our children.
Each day, as our children climb on the school bus, they are a step closer to being adults. They step on the magical bus into their future and the future of our country.
Each day, we must ask ourselves: “Are the skills they are learning going to prepare them to become productive adults, caring and responsible citizens?”
Magic Bus Ride?
The school year is a precious opportunity for new growth. An opportunity to forget the hurts of the past, no matter how difficult. A new school year is a fresh start.
Build that future dream with much hope and picture the magic bus that can take you and your child into a year of wonder, new adventures and new learning in a land of diversity. We learn from our children and they learn from us, and that is also magic.
Wishing you a great year full of magic.
When you were in school, how did you learn about people with disabilities, differences? Do you think there are things to be learned by sharing your lunch with someone who doesn’t talk with words? With someone who uses a communication board to talk? With a classmate who learns differently? With a friend who just happens to have a label of disability?
Keep Climbing–onward and upward.
All the best,