From: "Citizenship in School: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome" - Christopher Kliewer
When we started this course, one of the first activities we did asked us to reflect on certain privileges that people who fit into the dominant ideology (based on Straightness, Christianity, Whiteness, Able-bodiedness, American-ness, Male-ness, Property Ownership) take for granted on a daily basis. When thinking about able-bodiedness, it was easy to understand how an individual in a wheelchair may not be able to participate fully in a world/school/classroom unless it was specifically designed to include him or her. It wasn't until just a few weeks ago that I understood more fully the term "able-bodied," how many individuals don't live up to the dominant ideology's expectations, the infinite ways that their voices and experiences are silenced...and how much our schools are at fault for maintaining the status quo.
Kliewer poignantly states that "acknowledging students with Down syndrome as thoughtful, creative, and interested learners with personal identities that distinguish them from all other people suggests an individual value that enhances any context containing the child" (86). Each individual student, disabled or non-disabled, has a unique viewpoint and experience that they can share with their classmates. Their classmates, in turn, build webs and connections to these people and experiences; Vygotsky's research and writing clarifies the understanding that children are "active constructors of knowledge who constantly enter into new relationships of understanding with adults, peers, and materials," leading to "...constant reformulation and recontextualization of understanding" (82). Kliewer refers to Vygotsky's findings and relates them to the "culture of segregation" that is usually associated with children that have mental disabilities, such as those with Down syndrome.
Two weeks ago, I covered the isolation classroom for students with special needs at the middle school after teaching my two classes. In this room, there are between four and seven students at any given time (depending on when particular students attend extracurricular classes), and four adults. Two of the students aren't in any inclusion classes, and only leave the room to use the bathroom and go to lunch. Three of these students have Down syndrome, and the others have moderate-severe disabilities that prevent them from joining an inclusion classroom. The work they are asked to do is boring, and the day seems to revolve around having something (busywork, games, etc.) for the students to do so they won't act out and misbehave. This isn't the only thing that bothers me about that classroom.
What I noticed during the days I covered the isolation room was that when regular-education (non-disabled) students came into the room for advisory, they walked straight past the other students and huddled in the back corner, trying not to make eye contact with any of them. There were no friendly exchanges or advisory games, and the regular-ed students couldn't get out of the classroom quick enough once the bell rang to signal the end of advisory. These students, and the teachers that allow this non-interaction on a daily basis, are reducing the level of democracy in the school, and ultimately, in their world: "to eliminate a single person through any form of banishment, no matter how benevolent the logic, reduces the web and makes the community a less democratic and less rich place" (95). If these students with disabilities can't join a regular education classroom, and other students can't even acknowledge their existence in their own classroom, how will they know how much they have to offer the world? If these students with Down syndrome and different mental/physical disabilities are treated as "other" or "lesser" compared to the rest of the student population, nobody gets to benefit from all of the magic and wonder that they have to offer, because every single student has these things to offer. We have to be the change agents, the teachers that advocate for respect of all students, both as "active agents in the learning process and essential members of the learning community."
Reading this article reminded me of a video I saw earlier this year about a magnificent little boy named Owen and his dog Haatchi. Dogs (and other animals) are often used to help treat and educate young children with mental and physical disabilities. Why can't we encourage our students to view the world as these animals do: that all humans are capable and deserving of love, companionship, and happiness? Why can't we, like Dewey, foster the belief that "schools must serve as the sites in which children develop both a sense of commitment to one another and a sense of self-direction leading to the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious?"