A few years ago, I participated in the strange ritual familiar to parents of young children in D.C.: I visited a dozen or more public and charter school open houses so I could figure out how to rank the schools in my son’s preschool lottery application.
As I sat in tiny chairs, taking notes on aftercare availability and amount of recess, something else came up repeatedly: most of the schools said they expected all incoming 3-year-olds to be potty trained.
I fidgeted, my backpack loaded down with diapers. My son has developmental delays due to a brain injury around the time of birth. He’s a hilarious, energetic, sensitive, very stubborn kid with a heartwarming smile. He walks and runs and rides a balance bike at about 100 miles per hour, and understands what people say to him. He also has fine motor difficulties and can say only a few words that people can understand. I suspected he would not be able to be potty-trained before school started. I also knew that if his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) made potty training one of his goals, the school was required to accept that.
But did other parents whose kids might have special needs know that? And did the schools know, or care? Later that year one child in my informal network of special needs families was more or less kicked out of a charter school because she wasn’t potty trained, IEP notwithstanding. The school suggested she might find a better “fit” someplace else.
These potty training discussions from the open houses stick with me, because they were the first time I realized the real significance of inclusion.
At heart, inclusion is the assertion that my son, and other people with disabilities, deserve to belong and to be included in school and in the world, just like everyone else. Inclusion is both a legal and a moral requirement. That’s the case even though educating children with special needs often requires more resources and different ways of doing things.
Despite decades-old federal laws requiring public schools to educate children with special needs in the “least restrictive” appropriate setting, the idea that some public schools might just decide that educating children with special needs is a task for someone else is a pretty standard part of our national discussion on education. A recent New York Times story on Success Academy, the charter school chain that kept a “Got to Go” list of kids it wanted to pressure into withdrawing, made this distressingly clear.
The spokeswoman for Success denied that the school pushed children out. But she explained that sometimes they did try to “help parents find the right environment for their children” and that some of the kids on that list required special ed services that the school “could not” (did not) offer.
We are very lucky that my son was admitted, via that byzantine lottery, to a school that lists “inclusion” as one of its founding principles. The school has been great for him. He has a wonderful dedicated aide. His classmates seem to accept him as he is, and he uses his “talker” (an iPad with a communication app) to tell us who his favorite friends are and that he runs fast with them. Early this year his teacher came up with a “talkers for everyone” project, and all the other kids decorated screen shots of the communication app, stuck them on cardboard and wore them like necklaces.
I am grateful for the school’s commitment to inclusion every day. But it is remarkable that a public charter school should feel it has to differentiate itself from other schools by pointing out that it is dedicated to something that has been legally required for decades. It would be pretty strange for a public school to advertise that was dedicated to complying with health and safety laws, or to educating all children regardless of race or gender. It shouldn’t be necessary. But in a world in which public schools like Success Academy openly tell the New York Times they just “can’t” educate children with special needs, our school’s advertised commitment to inclusion can feel like a rainbow flag in a homophobic neighborhood.
Of course, sometimes a self-contained special ed classroom is the right choice for a student, either some or all of the time. We wouldn’t rule it out for our son at some point in the future. (Having a child with special needs is a very effective cure for the folly of thinking you know what is coming, and thus for tempting fate by saying “I’ll never be a parent who does X.”) But those decisions should be made on an individual basis by the parents and the child, with the input of the child’s teachers and therapists, based on what’s best for the child. A public school shouldn’t be able to decide that educating kids with special needs just isn’t its thing, any more than it could decide it would rather not teach kids who are learning English, or who are academically advanced and bored in class, or who are bad at sports. A more homogeneous student population is undoubtedly easier to manage than a more diverse one, but all children benefit from being exposed to others who are different from themselves.
It’s possible that my frustration at the potty training announcements at the open houses years ago is out of proportion. Those schools were probably not intentionally suggesting that they didn’t want kids with special needs. But they highlighted for me a fact I don’t usually focus on: that we will have to fight, maybe for our whole lives, for our son’s right to belong in the world.
Jennifer Hunter is a labor lawyer who lives in D.C.
You may also be interested in: