Elise Ronan
Justice, justice, you shall pursue....

Inclusion for those with disabilities requires educating society

Last week in Tel Aviv someone fired shots into a house that is the residence for people with intellectual disabilities. The government is investigating and every politician emitted the proper soundbite. But no one actually talked about the underlying cause of the incident… lack of education, a refusal to understand how inclusion works and an accepted pervasive ignorance about persons with disabilities.

Society, all societies, not just Israel, can talk about inclusion and acceptance of those with disabilities, but until you learn to educate the general population with the truth about those who are different, incidents like what happened in Tel Aviv are going to continue everywhere.  Whether those who thought nothing of endangering these vulnerable people actually understand what an intellectual disability means or how those with disabilities function in society is not immediately important, of course. They committed a crime. They should and must be punished.

Yet it would behoove society to try to learn and rethink how it views those with disabilities. I am reminded of what actually happened when they brought my oldest son back in district in our little hamlet in the USA. He had previously been assigned to an autism only program. It truly was a good situation for him and helped him get over some debilitating hurdles. In the meantime he had progressed and grew as an individual and that placement was no longer appropriate for him. It was time for him to be included in a regular classroom.

Now here in the USA there are many different manifestations of classroom organization when dealing with students with disabilities. Our school district devised a collaborative teaching program with one-to-one support for him and several other autistic children. This means that at any given time in a class of 20 students there were at least 3 adults in the room; the main teacher, a certified special education teacher and one paraprofessional (there could be upwards of 3 paraprofessionals if needed). Meanwhile there could never be more than 5 students with disabilities in that classroom, so everyone received the needed attention, and those students without educational issues would receive the education that they were also entitled to receive. You might assume that a thinking parent would be overjoyed with the added adult support in the class. Well you would assume wrong.

Needlesstosay, all hell broke loose among our very liberal-progressive neighbors. The “not in my backyard syndrome” reared its ignorant and ugly head. Meetings with the school district were called. Lawsuits were threatened. My highly educated neighbors called my son names you don’t call an adversary, never mind a disabled child. Luckily here in the USA there are education and civil rights laws to protect children like my son. The district was in their right to include him in a regular class setting. So my son’s right to an education was protected. But the people that live in the district never forgave him for having the nerve to stay here to be educated. Parents made sure to exclude him from every aspect of childhood and did their best to alienate our family. (We stayed because the school district itself was doing right by our children.)

Meanwhile I did what I could to help the general student. I volunteered through our Parent’s Association. My goal was to show that I was there to work with all students and to help all families. It was my way of saying thank you to the school district at large. I wanted to show my neighbors that I understood that everything wasn’t always just about my child, but that every student was important.

Yet, to my neighbors my son’s existence was still seen as a drain on their children’s education. In fact a rather interesting recurring theme continues to this day that having “children with special needs” in classes prevents their “normal” offspring from getting into an Ivy League College. Other parents told me that they resented having to pay for my son’s education since he would not go to college. (Little did they know that my son would graduate with honors from college, and would also attend graduate school.) I have been asked why do we spend money on “Cadillac” programs for those with disabilities instead of being more realistic and spend the money are the more worthwhile students. (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.) These people seem to forget that in the USA a child doesn’t have to be destined for post-secondary education, or have an above average IQ, to be entitled to a public k-12 education.

On the other hand, three years later the situation was extremely different for my younger son. His classmates not only accepted him, but these students took it upon themselves to make sure he was included and welcomed into the school. They took it upon themselves to make certain that he had a good time and enjoyed his time in school. They took it upon themselves to make certain that no one and nothing upset him or hurt him. They became his barrier to the world and his support. In fact, these students prided themselves on how happy and functional he was in school.

The difference? Education? Understanding? Yet most likely, better parenting and a better upbringing. I remember talking to a parent in my younger sons class who was thrilled that their typical child was in a collaborative program. “Three adults to 20 children…how great was that!” I remember she said to me that she was trying to figure out how to get her daughter included in these classes throughout her education. These parents understood that persons with disabilities were not only a part of life, but they also added a unique and necessary dimension to their children’s education. They saw the positives of the collaborative program for all children involved.

Sadly however, I have been informed that my youngest’s experience in school was the exception and students with disabilities are still alienated and resented in our community. I honestly have no real answer for this. You can’t even say that it’s because we do not live in a Jewish world. Half of my community either lives in a Jewish household or has one Jewish parent. You can then ask, is it the lack of Jewish education and an understanding of Jewish values? How successful then is Jewish Disability Awareness month? What exactly are the rabbis teaching? What do those mitzvah projects really mean in the long run? Is it a loss of the idea of community and have we forgotten what it really means to care for one another? But somehow I also don’t think its just a Jewish issue either. I doubt that dehumanizing those with disabilities is something that is taught in the New Testament. Believe me there are as many who go to church every week in our community as attend Shabbat services. Perhaps the reality is that no matter where you live and no matter how much book learning you have, there is no guarantee that the house you grow up in will be filled with a concept of humanity, charity and acceptance.

So arrest the horrible people in Tel Aviv who think they can frighten those who are born different through no fault of their own. Arrest those who think that terrorizing the weakest members of society is a positive endeavor. Arrest those that think committing a crime against the disabled is not a crime. But in the end, it is society itself that needs to be educated about intellectual disabilities. It is important to dispel the myths and ignorance that surround all disabilities, but especially those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The disabilities that you do not see are the ones that garner the most myth and libel.

Education is a societal endeavor. Just telling people to stop being ignorant does no good if you don’t use your bully pulpit to inform and remind society just what it means to be a civilized nation. Sadly no matter where you live, it appears that we all have a long way to go to reach our own notion of humanity.

About the Author
#RenegadeJew ...Elise's specific background deals with the practical aspects of raising special needs children. She has over 20 years experience advocating for her sons and others. Her motto: Don't put off the important things. Stand up for what you believe in. Do what is right and honest. Have patience. Have self-respect. Be kind. And above all BE BRAVE. Elise is a graduate of Boston University Law School and a Certified College Transition Coach for Persons with Asperger's Syndrome. She blogs under a pen-name to protect her sons' privacy.