When I went to grade school back in the seventies, things were different. I’m not talking about funding or how I was taught the basics or even the relationship between students and teachers…sure, to a greater or lesser degree, aspects of all of those are different these days. But what I’m talking about today is something else, something that’s a lot more personal for me since the birth of my son fourteen years ago.
When I went to school, it was the very rare day when we would see any kids with disabilities. These kids were kept separate from the “general” population. In fact, they may have been kept on a completely separate campus…I’m not even sure. So when we did see a kid with autism or cerebral palsy or Down syndrome we’d, quite naturally for kids our age, stare. Even away from school you’d seldom see a special needs child. I did have a neighbor for one year whose brother was mentally handicapped but he was hardly ever out of the house, and when he was when didn’t know how to interact with him. He was just odd, and, in fact, many of us would just go home. That’s the way kids are.
I find that sad now, thinking back. It was a missed opportunity, not just for my neighbor’s brother and the other special needs kids, but for us. The problem was we had very little exposure to the disabled, so they were foreign to us, even scary because we just couldn’t understand them. I remember times people would joke about them and make fun of these kids behaviors. It was, perhaps unintentionally, mean. But more than anything it was simply ignorant.
All this comes to mind because my son, Ronan, just graduated from junior high. You see, he has Down syndrome. For those familiar with Downs you might have noticed there are many levels to the condition from high functioning to extremely low. Ronan falls somewhere in the high side of the middle, if that makes sense.
Unlike when I was in school, he spends part of his school days in classes with the non-special needs kids. It isn’t to really learn what they were learning, that’s not something he can do, it’s more for the socialization, not just for him but for the other students. In fact, I would actually argue that it is almost more important in the long run for “regular” kids than for my son. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for him, too.
When Ronan went to junior high, where kids now had to go to a different classroom every hour for a new subject, he did have his special needs classroom, but for most of the day he was in the regular classes. But he didn’t go alone. They have this great program at his school where kids can become buddies for a special needs kid. They help their buddies to get to class and spend time with them and become their friends.
At graduation, I met the parents of Ronan’s buddy. The boy’s father was so surprised by how his son had taken to the program. He told me his son has patience for no one, but with Ronan he has become incredibly patient. He also said that his son was always talking about Ronan, so they made a special effort to meet him that morning. But their son isn’t Ronan’s only non-special needs friend.
At some point in the past two years, Ronan had become friends with two other boys, boys who weren’t necessarily the best students in the school nor always the most discipline, but they had taken to my son, and for both years of junior high, they would hang out with him. They even asked for special permission from the school for Ronan (alphabetically at the other end from them) to walk with them in the graduation ceremony. I watched as these two boys made sure he knew where he was going, guiding him to his seat, then leading him up to the stage when it was their turn. I admit I got a tear in my eye watching this.
Then after the ceremony was over (when I met my son’s buddy’s parents), I was surprised by how many of the other students made it a point of saying hi to Ronan. And you know what? Not one child there stared at him. He was just someone they were used to seeing.
And thought he was exactly they same as he has always been, he was also…normal.
Education has been under a lot of attacks over the years. They’ve been forced to do more with less. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t, through no fault of their own. But in this area of demystifying the disabled, they’re doing a great job.
Things aren’t perfect. But they are certainly headed in the right direction.
The disabled are people, too. They just need a little more time and patience and understanding. They can’t help how they are. They, like all of us, are just living the best they can. The good thing is more and more people are realizing this. Someday, maybe everyone will. Given what I’ve seen of my son’s friends, I believe it will.