Should disabled kids be integrated into regular classrooms, or should they be segregated into classrooms or schools with other disabled kids?
This issue gets emotional. Among activists, it can lead to tears and screaming- I mean more so than usual.
I’ve thought about the whole thing quite a bit as it pertains to autistic culture. Is it better for autistic folk to go off and be among other autistics, or is it healthier to try and function among neurotypicals? Is there a blended approach that might work?
I’ve done presentations about autism in a number of public schools, and had the opportunity to see a variety of approaches to integration.
One school I spoke at was the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf. It was pretty fucking awesome. As you can tell from the name of the school, it’s populated by Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Deaf culture is one of the oldest disability cultures around, and I admire the hell out of it. People who identify as culturally Deaf see deafness as a different way of experiencing the world, and a different way of communicating. This is similar to how a lot of members of the autistic culture feel about autism: we’re not broken, we just move through life differently.
Autistic culture is still fairly young- it’s only been around in any meaningful sense for about fifteen years. Deaf people, on the other hands, have been kicking ass for decades. I’d like very much for my culture to be like Deaf culture when it grows up.
Anyway, the school for the Deaf. I remember standing on the stage of the auditorium in front of about sixty kids, and they were all talking to each other because we hadn’t gotten started yet. You know how kids are, especially when they get to be out of class for some reason. They were keyed up and hyper and chatty.
And the room was totally silent.
They were all communicating to each other in Sign. I realized that I was fully immersed in an alien culture, something healthy and self-sustaining and mature and complicated and totally different from anything I’d ever seen before.
I thought in that moment that this was probably the best place for these particular kids, where they can go about being kids in their own way, with other kids who are like themselves.
That’s what segregated education looks like.
I can compare to that my own experiences in elementary school and high school. I was fully integrated. In elementary school my accommodations generally ranged from mediocre to poor, nobody knew what to do with me, I felt isolated from my peers, and in the last two years of school I was bullied dozens of times everyday.
Things mellowed out for me in high school. There wasn’t any bullying or unnecessary drama, and my accommodations were a lot better. I was still separated from other autistic people, left to find them by chance (and I did- most Aspies I’ve talked to about high school weren’t so lucky).
Out of all the Aspies I’ve talked to, I’m the only one who had a positive high school experience. All the ones I know were fully integrated.
When I was doing presentations, I had the privilege of seeing something which I think is pretty unique: it was a semi-integrated class of kids on the autistic spectrum.
Here’s how that works. There were between six and eight kids in the class (I spoke to them two years in a row, and the numbers fluctuated). The class served as a home base, and it was served by a teacher and an educational assistant. The kids spent a certain amount of time in the class everyday, and spent the rest of the time in regular classes with their non-autistic peers. I didn’t get a chance to see how the kids handled being in regular classes, but I saw the autistic class, and holy shit.
It was paradise.
I can’t quite articulate how meaningful it was for me to be in that space and interact with those kids. I was diagnosed with autism when I was thirteen, and in the course of my life had only had a few passing interactions with anything that could be considered autistic culture. Generally I pursued autistic culture as if it was a wacky wish (like getting a million dollars) or as an abstract ideal (like world peace).
This classroom was autistic culture. Concrete, pragmatic, and real. The kids all had their own stuff going on, and buzzed around doing their own thing, watched and Maintained by the teacher and E.A.. Some amount of (minimal) order was attained. A schedule was adhered to. The teacher and E.A. were interested in the kids, and patient, and good-humoured, and never condescending. The kids seemed happy.
The teacher understood the value of parallel play, which is an autistic concept I haven’t gotten around to writing about yet (I never did it as a kid, so it hasn’t played a significant role in my life). Basically, it’s a way of interacting with someone where you’re sharing an activity without actually interacting with them. Painting pictures side by side, for instance, or playing with action figures separately in the same sandbox. Minimal verbal exchanges (could you pass the black crayon, please?) do occur.
The first time I ever participated in parallel play was in that classroom. We sat around a table and drew pictures with crayons while listening to music. There were hardly any words exchanged. And no non-verbal communication at all.
I remember talking about it with my co-presenters afterward, both of whom had also never parallel played until then (they’d been diagnosed late like me).
“That parallel play thing,” I said. “It felt…”
“Familiar,” said my co-presenter.
“Exactly. Like we were meant to be doing it.”
No matter what else happens to those kids during the school day, they have that space where they can return to and be themselves. It’s not just a safety net; it’s something much more profound.
That’s semi-integrated education.
Based on my experiences, I think integrated education is a disaster. I think it’s wrong to isolate kids from their own kind, and that they should be given the opportunity to be together and learn about each other and their culture. This can be done in many different ways- they don’t have to be completely removed from what’s considered normal.
And obviously, it depends on the needs of the kid. Every kid’s needs are different. Every kid thinks and feels differently and interacts with the world in their own way.
So the solution will differ for every kid.
This is one of the reasons I’m skeptical of the educational system in general. They don’t recognize that every kid’s needs are different. They teach every kid the same materials in the same way within the same length of time, and are all too ready to throw out any kid who doesn’t respond to that.
I think when it comes to the issue of integration versus segregation, an important question gets missed:
What exactly are we trying to integrate them into?
I think the system is irrepairably fucked- not just for disabled kids, but for everyone. With disabled kids, at least we have a ready-made excuse to get them the hell out of there. This thing we call normal society that people cling to so passionately isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are so many things that are better. There are so many places that are happier and safer and more functional. And natural.