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Special education: bastion of apartheid

From the archives: A mother's story

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We reprint below the Notebook's first "Eye on Special Education" column, which appeared in the Fall 1994 edition.

Special education has become the last bastion of apartheid.

Children in Pennsylvania are still needlessly segregated by busing, by classrooms and by schools. As the mother of a special needs student, I have watched my own son suffer from this segregation. I have experienced a consistent practice to steer my child into a tracked and limited educational career.

Hassan Adib Sabree is 14-years-old and in tenth grade at Roxborough High School. He is labeled as Trainable Mentally Retarded (TMR) and is in a lifeskills support class.

Hassan has been educated in a segregated environment since first grade when he was displaced from his neighborhood school because the school did not provide TMR classes.

He was bused to another school on a bus separate from the other students. Once at school, he was hustled through a separate entrance. He was not allowed to play in the schoolyard with other children; he had a separate recess. During school hours, he never mingled with non-special education children - even in gym, when he could participate meaningfully with the other students.

Hassan's education has also suffered. Even as a 10th grade student, Hassan has essentially been taught the same 25 sight words he has had since first grade. Similarly, his mathematics education still consists of learning basic counting skills. He has never been taught basic operations skills such as addition or subtraction. I have had to fight to have Hassan learn how to tell time beyond the hour and half-hour. He has rarely had any homework. In addition, he has had no health or sex education in his classes.

Like many special needs children, Hassan has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that outlines how he is supposed to be educated. I have found the IEP is more like an EEP, "Everybody Else Plan." For example, I have requested numerous times that Hassan be taught to read. I have been told just as often that, "Everybody knows a Down's syndrome child can't read." I have been discouraged from placing Hassan in an Educable Mentally Retarded classroom where he could get reading skills.

Even when an order is written into an IEP, there is no guarantee the school will follow the plan. At his elementary school, Hassan, in accordance with his IEP, was supposed to have integrated gym classes twice a week. The school did not oblige this minimal request until I threatened to file a due process complaint.

When Hassan was in middle school, I decided that my son should not take a separate bus to school, but take public transportation instead. Despite strong objections from school personnel, I felt Hassan could not learn the community by being separated from it. I wanted him to learn how to behave in public, how to ask for directions, and how to pay attention when traveling. Hassan has been successfully using public transportation and is very proud of his independence.

I have accepted that, despite my strong belief that integration is important for many special needs students, it would be difficult at this point to mainstream Hassan into a high school curriculum.

I accept this for Hassan but not for students and families who are beginning early in the special education system. Knowing what I know now, I would have insisted that Hassan be mainstreamed upon entry into the public schools. Education is supposed to prepare you for life after high school. The TMR curriculum is not preparing Hassan for anything. I have had to do the work of the schools.

Segregation in special education programs has left children bankrupt emotionally and socially by denying them interaction with their peers and by denying them opportunities to learn. Segregation has also denied non-special education children the opportunity to become more knowledgeable about differently-abled students.

I am now teaching Hassan how to read. This summer, he took three buses to Holy Family College for a reading/writing program with non-special education children. The personnel at Holy Family did not tell me, "Down's syndrome children can't learn to read," or say, "You're TMR; you can't use the computer." They did what they did with the other children, modifying where needed.

I cannot go back in time for Hassan, but I can make it better for other children by forewarning parents to avoid the apartheid that is special education.

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