Sunday, November 23, 2014

Citizenship in Schools: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome

In Chapter 4, Citizenship in Schools: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome, of his book Schooling Children with Down Syndrome, Chris Kliewer argues that that there is a great advantage, as opposed to the assumed disadvantage, to the inclusion of children with Down syndrome into regular classrooms.  The typical segregation of students with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, takes away from the learning environment of all students, which in turn results in a large gap in the school community.  He says, "Educating all children together reconfigures the representation of Down syndrome from being a burden toward citizenship" (95).

At the high school I attended, there was a huge segregation of students with disabilities.  They arrived to school after everyone else.  They then went to their "special" classrooms for the rest of the day.  Not once did I ever have a student with a mental disability in my class, but I have no doubt in my mind that many of these students were just as smart, if not smarter, than me and the rest of my "normal" classmates.  They ate lunch after everyone else, and then they cleaned the cafeteria up.  That was their main job.  Their other job was to bake things and make coffee and sell it to teachers on a little cart.  This reminded me of Anne who is described in the reading whose "committee had decided [without her] that Anne, who has Down syndrome, would become a preschool aide.  Anne did not particularly care for young children and was unhappy with the prospect of spending her life working with them.  While I think that the jobs given to the Special Education students at my school were supposed to be their to help them with social skills and interacting with people, I believe the school fell short with their attempt.  For one thing, they were only allowed to sell to teachers, not students, which gave them no opportunity to interact with their peers and other people their own age.  I think that much more progress could have been made if "children with Down syndrome join their non disabled peers in classrooms" (74).  I remember one specific interaction I had with a girl in my high school who had Down syndrome which I will not soon forget.  I went to the bathroom during class and was washing my hands at the sink when she came in.  I believe she mistook me for someone else she knew at the school (perhaps a peer mentor?) and got very excited to see me.  She greeted me enthusiastically, to which I responded in an equally enthusiastic tone and smiled.  I had no choice but smile, as her ear to ear grin was contagious.  From that day forward, whenever I would see her in the hallway she would always wave to me excitedly and smile her beautiful, genuine smile.  I wish that I could have had more opportunities for such interactions in my schooling; however, they were limited by the segregation of Special Ed. students from "Normal Ed." students.  I would have to agree with Kliewer in that "society itself is hurt when schools act as cultural sorting machines--locations that "justify competitive ethic that marginalizes certain students or groups of students…[that] legitimize discrimination and devaluation on the basis of the dominant society's preferences in matters of ability, gender, ethnicity, and race…and [that] endorse an elaborate process of sorting by perceived ability and behavior" (73).  This particular quote also reminded me of Becoming Something Different: Learning from Esme in that both discuss the repercussions of sorting students by their "perceived ability" whether it be due to mental disabilities, learning disabilities, etc.

Looking back, I wish that the students with disabilities at our high school could have been less segregated, particularly at lunch time.  What better time to feel part of a community and practice social skills than the 25 minutes dedicated to only eating and socializing.  I would have definitely eaten lunch with the girl I met in the bathroom that day, whose name I never got to know.  I could have used that opportunity to get to know her for more than her Down syndrome.  Unfortunately, because we ate lunch at separate times, I never had such an opportunity.

Right now, I work as a dance instructor at a local YMCA; and we have a sweet little girl (let's call her Lucy) in one of our Combo (tap/ballet) classes.  Unlike some dance schools, we do not offer "Adaptive Ballet" for students with Down syndrome, so Lucy takes a regular class like all the other four and five year old girls.  On the first day that I came into the class to teach, she greeted me with the biggest smile.  She kept waving to me throughout the class.  Since I co-teach with another instructor, one of us is always able to spend one-on-one time with Lucy, helping her go across the floor and congratulating her on her efforts, which are just as good, if not better, than some of her peers.  To quote Kliewer again, "all students are welcomed, no voice is silenced, and children come to realize their own self-worth through the unconditional acceptance of one another" (74).  Just last week when I was helping the girls change from ballet to tap shoes, Lucy got distracted in her backpack by a pair of pink knit gloves.  She was SO excited by them and eagerly put one on.  Once she had one on, she struggled to get the other on, so I helped her.  Her face lit up as she told me pink and purple were her favorite colors..  She then complied quickly with directions to get her tap shoes on and proceeded to put them on herself, something that half of the other girls had needed my help to do.  And that is how she went to class.  Pink gloves and all.  All of the other girls in the class accepted Lucy for who she was, not for her disability, as did myself and the other instructors.  All of us unconditionally accepted her, and her us, despite our chromosomal differences.  I love that young kids Lucy's age have no problem looking past those insignificant differences and truly just accept one another always.

This PDF, Inclusion: Educating Students with Down Syndrome With Their Non-Disabled Peers, dives further into the idea of inclusion.

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