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As human beings, we are aware that everybody is different. From childhood, we have all heard the cliché: “we are all special in our own ways.” Some are born with an artistic mind, some with an athletic drive, and some with different intellectual or physical qualities. Even though many have tried to prove different, those with special needs are just as gifted as the artist or the athlete. Why do many still believe that children with learning disorders are not as qualified for standard education as other children? If children with learning disorders are to reach their potential, two fundamental principles must be upheld: that children have the right to attend mainstream schools, and that this attendance is more effective than a secluded classroom.
Throughout history, those with special needs have been repeatedly treated unfairly. As far back as 500 BCE, people in the early Roman Republic didn’t possess the word “disabled” in their dictionary and instead they called those with special needs, the “monstrum,” (Shafer 1) meaning “the ugly or frightening appearance of a monster” or “inhumanly or outrageously evil or wrong” (New Oxford American Dictionary 1).
This treatment carried over to the Greeks from 427-322 BCE. Both Aristotle and Plato had strong opinions on those with learning disabilities: Aristotle supported abortion or infanticide, the practice of killing children, if there was a risk of the child being born with a learning disability. He once declared, “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” (Shafer 1). Plato, too, had a similar opinion on this subject: “…to put to death those whose psychological condition is incurably corrupt.
This is the best thing to do, both for the individual sufferer and for society.” (Shafer 1). By suggesting that both society and the individual benefit from such execution was a horrific inference. Society truly benefits from learning about those with special needs, and those with learning disabilities can lead very happy and productive lives. The barbarity of infanticide diminished over the years. This c ontrast was striking in one culture in particular. In 7th century Islamic society, people believed that the minds of those with learning disorders were in Heaven while their bodies existed on Earth (Slater 1). In more recent history, the United States Congress has passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is a law ensuring educational services to children with disabilities.
IDEA, first introduced in 1990, governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. It states that children in special education must receive the least restrictive environment appropriate for their education (Stout 1). The Act’s intention had more than a purely educational component. Many supporters argued it was a humanistic and social necessity. Robert T. Stafford, the Republican Senator from Vermont and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, has argued that the legislation is essential if we are to allow children with special needs to live ordinary lives (Stout 1).
Mainstreaming, and everything it has to offer, provides children with the ability to be successful in life. Without mainstreaming, special needs children would be missing out on the opportunity to acquire essential educational and social skills. We would be depriving them of the same success all children have in mainstream education. The United Nations’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has deemed education a basic human right (Kalantry, Getgen, and Koh, 261).
Before the enactment of IDEA, only one in five students with disabilities was deemed qualified for education in the U.S. Over one million students were denied access to public schools and 3.5 million received only insufficient services. Some states even refused to educate those with specific disabilities such as blindness or deafness. Almost 200,000 children labeled “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally retarded” had gone not only uneducated, but were institutionalized (National Counsel on Disability 1). IDEA was formed to try to eliminate these inequalities. The central premise of IDEA’s mandate was to offer a more inclusive and integrated environment for those with learning disabilities.
Typically, this environment would be a mainstream classroom. The term mainstream refers to an education in which students with special needs are taught in a “regular” classroom. These students would be required to keep up with the work given by the regular teacher (Stout 1). In this situation, the students would still receive the essential help needed according to their disability, and this information would be put in their IEP, or Individual Education Plan (Kozlowski). Integrating students with special needs into the mainstream classroom would provide more opportunities and benefits, to both the child, and his or her peers. Children with more extreme learning disorders are not the only ones who are fighting to receive mainstream education. Children with more mild disabilities such as ADHD and Dyslexia also benefit greatly from the inclusion of mainstream programs.
These students may be able to adapt to the classroom changes more readily, therefore for this group in particular it is purely the educational aspect that they would benefit from. Responding to classwork that is at a higher level than that of a secluded classroom would greatly be to the advantage of these kids’ academic skills as they build on their adequate social skills.
When it comes to mainstreaming children with learning disorders, there are many advantages, one of these being that the student builds higher self-esteem in multiple ways. As these students integrate into mainstream classrooms, they may be faced with more academically challenging work, and succeeding with such a challenge will higher the student’s morale. Jackie Murray, a headmistress at the Fairley House in London states, “It is by succeeding, sometimes for the first time in their lives, that these children will develop self-esteem and confidence” (Special Needs Advice: Mainstream or Specialist School 8). For children who are used to mainstream classrooms, resolving challenges they encounter in their learning is an everyday task, but for special needs children, it can be life changing. Along with more stimulating work, students will accumulate new learning skills in order to carry out their new endeavors.
For the children with special needs, working with mainstream teachers helps further them to be on the same level as the others students within the classroom. They may feel that they are not necessarily required a devoted mentor primarily for themselves, and this in turn can help make them feel a part of an educational community. Students with special needs who have been integrated into mainstream classrooms also exhibit higher academic performance. A 2011 progress report from the National Council on Disability explains:
Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that fully inclusive schools, in which students with disabilities are fully engaged in the general educational setting and have access to the general education curriculum, result in higher academic performance for both students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers, whereas the placement of students in segregated classrooms because of diagnosis or special needs leads to detrimental outcomes” (68-69).
In other words, not only does mainstreaming better the student’s academic performance, but segregated classrooms dilute a student’s education. Once students with disabilities are working along side those without disabilities, both groups exhibit higher academic performance. Another factor that makes mainstream classrooms more suitable for children with special needs is the exposure to a real world environment where they are able to gain knowledge of both social skills and diversity. Learning these skills in the classroom is beneficial for special needs students as they grow up and are expected to encounter the real world without special assistance. Encouraging diversity will be advantageous especially when they interact with their future co-workers and neighbors (Reynolds, Zupanick, and Dombeck 1).
It is important to expose special needs students to students diversity at a young age. This transition would be best suited in a mainstream classroom rather than when the student arrives at college and beyond, not having been introduced to the wide range of people in the world. While children with special needs are growing accustomed to the diversity of their peers in a mainstream classroom, their peers are benefiting as well. Children without disabilities are provided the opportunity to appreciate and understand those with disabilities. Andrea Worcester from The Oregonian explains a situation at Centennial High School:
When students sign up for the peer tutor class, they sign up for an experience that will affect their lives. They are there not only to set an example and establish a friendship with the disabled teens, but also to help erase the prevalent misconceptions about mental disabilities. Kelly Nemmert, a peer tutor since September, said the special education students are benefiting by learning manners and skills used by their fellow students. However, Nemmert said she also benefits from the program because of her effort to help others (1).
Mainstreaming students also results in fewer behavioral problems for children with learning disorders because they’re able to see hands-on how children their age actually behave. Within a secluded classroom, the children are limited to a skill set like that of their own, but in a mainstream classroom they can pick up on the many ways kids interact with each other, good or bad. This recognition can help the student develop better social skills. It is important to note that some people believe mainstreaming is not the right choice for every child. This may be true to some extent, but mainstreaming is always beneficial in some way, even if not in its entirety. For example, if a child has a specific disability in which a segregated class is fitting, then perhaps allow the child to experience a mainstream class in some of the extracurricular subjects such as art, physical education, or music.
This way, the student can benefit from the mainstream environment and build up their social skills. Such a process could quite possibly lead the student up to a full mainstream school day in the future. Another solution for those students who may possess disabilities that limit their time in a mainstream classroom is a highly qualified, self-contained school. These schools provide classrooms with teachers and paraprofessionals that fully meet the needs of children with disabilities that may not be suitable for a mainstream classroom. For instance, the self-contained ELIM Christian School of Palos Heights, Illinois, provides resources that allow the children to meet their highest potential: “one on one” aids for each student, an average class size of seven, and therapy including occupational, speech, and physical. Providing the students with these facilities and services allows them to grow educationally so that one day they have the potential to be mainstreamed.
Paraprofessional Victoria Kozlowski from ELIM works daily with Ronnie, a 16 year-old student with down syndrome, to assist him in achieving his academic goals. She also works with him to develop real-world skills such as: wiping down tables, loading and unloading the dishwasher, sorting forks, spoons, and knives, and sweeping, just to name a few. By doing so, Ronnie is able to gain knowledge of skills necessary for an entry-level job in the restaurant industry. Within a school day at ELIM, students are taught both academically and vocationally by their individual aid, which is actually rare for many other secluded classrooms. In addition to this knowledge, the students are able to model appropriate behaviors for each other, as well as learn from each others’ mistakes. For example, at ELIM, when a student is exhibiting good behavior in the way that they are keeping their hands to themselves, an aid may tell their student to notice that the other student is using his or her “good hands.”
In such a circumstance, it is beneficial for these students to be in an environment with other students who may have the same disabilities so that they can connect with others who are on their level. Children who receive an education at self-contained schools such as ELIM are more likely to succeed in mainstream classrooms in the future due to the valuable resources and services offered (Kozlowski)
As seen throughout history, society has slowly but surely come to terms with providing equality to those with special needs, students in particular. We may not call our children who have learning disabilities “the monstrum,” nor do we call their psychological disabilities incurably corrupt, but in many ways, we are still holding these kids back in their education. There is still resistance from some educators and other constraints that are restricting kids with special needs to be able to take advantage of the mainstreaming program. This is substantially repressing many from being able to reach their full potential both inside the classroom and out. Humanity has come a long way since ancient times, and education has evolved over the years to provide a means for our youth to grow and become productive members of society, but there is much more that can be done, particularly for those on the fringe of acceptance in society. Recognizing that mainstreaming has a great deal of positive benefits, and providing the means to carry out this mandate, is a step in the right direction.
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