When I was in high school, our district decided to move a number of students who had previously been solely in special education classrooms into classrooms with the rest of the student population. This process was called “mainstreaming.” It was meant to foster higher academic achievement, self-esteem and better social skills.
By including students with disabilities in with the general population, educators hoped to give them a better chance at success in school and in life.
Many of these students had dyslexia or severe learning disabilities. Some had some form of autism. Some needed an aide to sit with them during class. Some were deaf. Some had tutors and helpers who understood their particular learning disability and could help them overcome obstacles in their studies.
It turns out that the hardest obstacle for them to overcome wasn’t related to education. It was us: the “regular kids,” the “normal” ones, the teens who moaned and groaned and whined whenever a special education student was assigned to his or her group for a presentation, the teens who whispered behind their backs and called them mean names.
These teens made it a social nightmare for those students. They blocked them out of activities, parties and extracurricular activities. There were teens who remained silent when the special education students were bullied, worried that they would be called names, too.
Recently, I was able to talk to a group of college students from Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Members of the group call themselves “best buds,” and they arrange fun activity nights for people who have disabilities. When it comes down to it, they said, people with disabilities want to be treated just like everyone else. They want to have friends, have fun and learn new things.
That shouldn’t be a shocker to some people, but it is. We treat disabled people with curiosity, fear and discomfort, when we really should be treating them just as we treat others.
During a recent event, some participants put on a talent show while others worked on art projects. Some participants produced works of art; others sang in front of a crowd. One duo of brothers performed a magic act. The “best buds” clapped and cheered.
The point, they said, is that people with disabilities are human, too. They have worth, and they need to be treated with respect. When people ask the “best buds” why they participate in these events when they could be hanging out with friends at a party or a bar, the college students usually respond: “But I am going to hang out with my friends.”
Just because someone speaks differently or processes information at a different pace doesn’t mean they are frightening or scary. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want what everyone else wants: happiness, friendship and a place to belong. Excluding them, however, is what a lot of people do.
It’s time to change how our culture treats those who are different, and there’s no better place to start than your classroom. Be mindful when students who have disabilities are in your midst. Include them in social activities and class projects.
Be a friend, not an obstacle.