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Honoring MLK and Kids with Special Needs

Published in ChicagoNow, January 20, 2014

Educating children with special needs in the least restrictive environment and including them in all of our communities is not "nice." It's their civil right and a legal imperative. Four years ago, I sat down with Rhonda Cohen, Cherry Preschool’s Inclusion Director, to write a piece honoring the memory of Martin Luther King. We felt certain then, and even more certain now, that he would have viewed the inclusion of children with special needs in our schools and communities as a moral and just cause. We hope you take a minute today to ponder how people who have different abilities deserve a place in American society. This is a revision of our original reflection.

We are all familiar with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Parents of children with special needs also dream of the day their children will be judged not by their delays, differences, or disabilities but by the content of their character. Ensuring the legal right of children with special needs to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment is one of the great civil rights battles of the 21st century.

While no parent knows what lies in his or her child’s future, for most the road is somewhat predictable. For those who discover their child has special needs, however, that road becomes dark, scary, and filled with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. These parents find themselves feeling all alone on that road, unable to find anyone who has traveled the same exact route.

Cherry Preschool, where approximately 10-12% of the population is comprised of children with identified special needs, firmly believes that inclusion in mainstream educational programs as well as in all aspects of society is every child’s right when that program represents the best opportunity for the child to learn and meet his/her educational goals. In the model the school developed, the classroom teacher is teamed with support staff to facilitate the inclusion of the children with special needs. This is a win-win for all involved! While the Inclusion Director and aides focus on the children with special needs in the class, all of the children benefit from having extra staff available to them.

There is also a wonderful social benefit. Including children with special needs in regular classes enables children with special needs to model the social, language, and play skills needed to succeed in school. It also enriches the lives of all children by bringing them together in an environment that teaches acceptance, respect, and the appreciation of individual differences. Such a classroom community teaches children to value and celebrate the diversity of our community and the world in which we live. It promotes pro-social behavior in which every member of the school community is treated with kindness and respect.

We recognize that as children grow and learning becomes more demanding and complex, the type of inclusion program offered at Cherry Preschool may not meet all of their needs. Like every child, a child with special needs is a totally unique person and there is no one-size fits-all answer to finding the educational program that best serves that child. A plan that balances the child’s learning needs with as much inclusion in the classroom community as possible should be the goal. Children with special needs who are in full-time inclusion classrooms have the right to extra support from a classroom aide and/or resource room teacher, differentiated learning guided by skilled special educators, and services that maximize school success.

Because the children have a wide variety of needs, our schools need to address their educational needs in the context of a continuum rather than trying to address all of their needs with the same approach. This is the way to honor their uniqueness. It is also what the law requires (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - IDEA).

For some children with significant developmental disabilities and/or medical needs, an appropriate community may be one in which all of the children require highly specialized support. For others, separate, self-contained classrooms are needed for part of the school day. While all parents of children with special needs dream of having their child educated in a regular classroom in their neighborhood school, some parents find they have to defer that dream in order to meet their child’s educational, physical, and medical needs in the here and now. For these families and these children, a self-contained special education classroom may be the most appropriate and least restrictive environment. When children are served in self-contained classrooms in our schools, it is important that the parents of typically developing children welcome and embrace these children and families so they feel part of the school community.

The path for every child is different, but the dream of all parents is the same: growth and happiness for their child. All children climb up the developmental ladder, some taking small, deliberate steps and others racing two rungs at a time. But regardless of their individual pace, they can all move up that ladder. This progress is largely due to an environment that makes them feel safe and nurtured, enabling them to take risks that might initially feel uncomfortable, and knowing that their every effort will be supported and applauded by their teachers and peers.

Whether that environment is in an inclusion classroom, a self-contained classroom, a combination of these environments, or a separate school, it is every child’s right to be educated in the least restrictive environment that meets his or her unique needs. That is the law. Regardless of the environment, every child and parent has the right to be valued, accepted, respected, and embraced by their school community and the greater community-at-large. That is the moral imperative.

On this day as we honor Dr. King, it seems appropriate to look at the battles yet to be fought. We need to work together to ensure that all children have the right to feel safe and accepted in a school community. As Marian Wright Edelman said, “The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.”


by Laurie Levy
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