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Massachusetts' community colleges have open enrollment and varied student populations. But since young adults with severe intellectual disabilities have different needs and different goals, wouldn't we be better off funding separate, targeted vocational programs? (Jirka Matousek/flickr)

It is often assumed that the greatest desire for people with disabilities is to be included with their non-disabled peers in the mainstream classrooms of higher education. But I wonder if this is always the best strategy for these young adults.

Community colleges here in Massachusetts have open enrollment and extremely varied student populations, but how well does the state university system do at reaching those with serious intellectual disabilities? Is it enough to welcome them, seat them side-by-side with their non-disabled peers? Is the curriculum adapted adequately? Are there also trained aides in the classrooms, as there are during the elementary and secondary years?

As a consultant to a community college consortium for students with intellectual disabilities, I worry about this professionally. But I live it personally. My oldest son, Nat, is severely autistic. I have been thinking about inclusion for 23 years, his whole life.

Many severely autistic and intellectually disabled young adults require a different curriculum altogether.

Nat was rarely included with his typical peers during his school days. And though I fought for his inclusion in many activities, I was glad for the separate, targeted special education he received, in self-contained small classrooms with autism specialists. Because now he is a successful adult — though still severely disabled. By successful, I don’t mean he has a college degree and a salaried position. I mean, he works at a supermarket rather than languishing five days a week in a day rehabilitation program as so many of his disabled peers do.

For many of the students who, like Nat, are on the “low-functioning” end of the intellectually disabled and the autism spectrum, inclusion in classrooms with typically developing students and no real supports or adaptations is not necessarily the ideal at all. It is good when done right, with trained staff, adapted curriculum and concrete, measurable goals. Otherwise, it may just be a pretty theory.

Many severely autistic and intellectually disabled young adults require a different curriculum altogether. They may even have different goals.

Nat, for example, is a young man with a limited capacity to speak or otherwise communicate. His learning style and his goals are utterly different from the average four-year college student. Someone of Nat’s skill level needs to be as independent as possible — he needs to learn a job, to supplement his small income from Social Security (and thereby require less public assistance).

As much as I would love it, Nat does not need to do what the majority of typical young adults do in this country. He does not need to learn poetry, politics, or history. He is different. And that’s okay. And don’t dare tell me I have low expectations. I have very high expectations of Nat’s semi-independence, so programs with real life job skills are the goal — certifications for actual jobs in the hotel, food, automotive industries, to name a few. That’s the kind of post-secondary education Nat needs — and these are most often (appropriately) found at community, not four-year, colleges. That’s the kind of program our state should also be funding for people with the most profound intellectual disabilities.

When the question of inclusion comes up, I often think of the “Story of Ferdinand,” a childhood classic by Munro Leaf. Many of us remember the quirky bull Ferdinand, who did not like to run and butt his head like all the other bulls, but rather, enjoyed sitting under an old cork tree and smelling the flowers. The part I always loved best was how Ferdinand’s mother “who loved him very much, even though she was a cow,” let him be who he was, knowing he was different.

As much as I would love it, [my son] Nat does not need to do what the majority of typical young adults do in this country. He does not need to learn poetry, politics, or history. He is different. And that’s okay.

Nat has brought out the mother cow in me. He has rarely done things the way other, typical children do. Why didn’t my little boy play the right way with toys? You push trucks, you don’t chew them! And why did he just want to sit in his stroller and suck his thumb while all the other children ran in the playground?

This state needs to be inclusive in its higher education policy and funding, meaning that our leaders must include every population in the conversation. For some at the most challenged end of intellectual ability, inclusion may be about seeing them for their own particular needs and abilities, and providing space, funding, and programs they can really benefit from. We can’t all be in the center of the bullring, and some of us don’t even need to be.

Susan Senator is the director of autism services and outreach at the Community College Consortium on Autism and Intellectual Disabilities.


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  • Susan Fisher Espourteille

    As an elementary school teacher in an inclusion classroom, I couldn’t agree more with the premises of this article. In following the “least restrictive environment” tenet of special education law, we often do a disservice to the most intellectually needy children. Sometimes a separate setting, with specially trained teachers, is the right solution, especially as the children get older and begin to understand their own challenges.

    I know next to nothing about what settings these children end up in after they leave my warm and accepting third grade classroom; once we have placed them for fourth grade in another building, we only hope they will continue to find acceptance and support as they grow up. Targeted programs in social training and real world skills would achieve this goal for most children, and I think these programs should begin early for the neediest of our kids.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and provocative piece; I am going to share it with my colleagues. (P.S. I’m unsure about the function of the star button above; I was intending to award 5 stars to this article, but I can only get it to go in a negative direction! It was not my intent to disparage article or author!)

    • Susan Senator

      Thanks, Susan! I like your honesty and dedication to the field. :-)
      –Susan

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      as a teacher I found that inclusion was not helpful for the students being included and often disruptive to the education of the mainstream kids. its one of those wishful thinking type policies so often adopted in public schools

      • dust truck

        for the “most intellectually needy children” or for all intellectually disabled? I’d imagine some would benefit from inclusion if their participation in classroom activities isn’t disruptive.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          imagine if in school they randomly bumped you up three or four grades and dropped you in an advanced class. would that be beneficial? you would struggle to keep up and the teacher would have to spend a lot of time on you instead of the other students and still you would probably have a worse outcome than if you were in a class suited to your level. my brother had a school where they had decided to do away with all tracking and had full inclusion. as a fairly bright kid without learning disabilities he found it quite frustrating to be taught at the same pace and level as those who do have them. he was bored and unchallenged and acted out at times because of it. I don’t think we are doing anyone any favors and what is the point of it besides some feel-good concept of “inclusiveness”?

  • Guest

    Inclusion means exclusion for others. I had to put my son in a private school to get his needs met. I fault the public schools for this, although my son graduated with a Finance degree many years later. Now, we are discussing schools for my grandson.
    The bottom line is the unfairness of this methodology.

  • Matt Bennington

    As a secondary school educator I have to agree with the premise of this article (though I might argue that all people need some kind of poetry in their lives even if that is the poetry of machines or colors or other nonverbal kinds of verse.)

    My concern is that we are not yet sensitive enough nor articulate enough in our understandings of how people learn and process differently. I’ve gotten IEPs saying a student has a specific communication disability which communicates very little to me about how I need to change my mode of communication.

    I agree that we need more vocational education resources, including at the secondary level. I agree that inclusion can be a fundamentally nurturing model but we need the resources to differentiate for the highest and lowest performers. I worry that in moving toward full inclusion the pendulum is swinging too far to fast without putting the infrastucture in place to make sure no one gets left behind.

    Thank you for this article and for speaking about this difficult issue from a place of compassion. I hadn’t thought about Ferdinand in decades.

  • Amy

    My daughter learned more in an inclusive setting than in a segregated special school where she was warehoused for 6 years. She is significantly impaired and lives at home, but without inclusion she would have been unknown in her community. She is safer now. I have had people come over to me to say how much it meant to them to have my daughter in school with them

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