On Sunday, March 8, 2015, at 2:00, Merrimack Hall will host Birmingham-based attorney Deborah Mattison in a free workshop to discuss special education law. Ms. Mattison is our state’s leading expert on IDEA, the federal legislation that protects the rights of children with special needs to an education. Ms. Mattison has successfully represented thousands of families in Alabama in their fight to obtain the education their children are entitled to receive. If you have a family member with special needs – school aged or not and regardless of what school district you live in – I urge you to attend this workshop. If you are an attorney, school administrator, teacher, aide or other service provider, I urge you to attend as well. It is my hope that this workshop will lead us into a grassroots movement to reform special education in our community.
The school system in my hometown has been under a desegregation order since 1963. The original order, issued by the Department of Justice, was intended to provide “fairness to black students.” Fifty-two years later, a Consent Order has been negotiated and was released to the public on January 26, 2015. I can’t begin to imagine how many lawyers, how much money and how many bureaucrats have wasted who knows how much time on this situation but worse than that, I can’t stand to think of how many African-American children have paid a price for our community’s inability to do the right thing.
The Consent Order calls for the redrawing of zone lines, the closing of several schools and the opening of new ones…all good things for our system as a whole. But who will bear the brunt of these changes? Students with special needs will. Our school system is finally taking steps to insure equitable treatment to racial minorities but how is it okay to take those steps to the detriment of another minority? If it’s not okay to discriminate against one group, how can it be okay to discriminate against another? And why don’t I hear a public outcry about this?
I am in no way suggesting that the struggles of one minority group are more or less important than those of another. But when we examine Civil Rights, I believe we should look further than race, ethnicity, sexual preference or gender.
Didn’t the Civil Rights Movement teach us that discrimination against other people for any reason is unacceptable? If someone is in the minority, does it really matter which minority box they check? Discrimination is wrong…period.
I was a child in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in a world that tolerated discrimination and injustice. I don’t want to live in a world like that again, nor do I want my grandchildren to live in a world where it’s okay to treat anyone unfairly. Thanks in large part to generational turnover – the bigots are finally dying off – Alabama is doing better, although we still have a long way to go.
I’m encouraged by the younger generation. Even here in Alabama, they are more open and accepting of those with differing views, lifestyles and life experiences than my generation ever imagined. But while we have to continue to advocate for equality across racial and gender lines, while we have to continue to teach tolerance for those with different religious views or different life experiences than us, we MUST make sure that the Civil Rights of ALL minority groups are protected.
So I’ve been pondering these things…segregation, inclusion, discrimination, diversity and all of those other politically correct buzz words we hear all the time. We go to “Diversity Training Workshops,” we are told that diversity in the workplace is important to business success, people pay lip service to the idea that we should celebrate diversity but it seems to me that most of the time, people are talking about diversity based on gender or race alone. I decided to see what google has to say about what diversity actually means. I found dozens of definitions, most of them variations on the following:
Diversity is ethnic, gender, racial, sexual preference and socioeconomic variety in a situation, institution, or group; the coexistence of different ethnic, gender, racial, sexual preference and socioeconomic groups within one social unit.
Isn’t there a group of people left out of this definition? Shouldn’t diversity include the coexistence – and equal treatment – of people with differing ability levels? A few of the definitions I found mentioned people with physical disabilities but not one said anything about people with intellectual disabilities. I wonder why and I wonder who it is that decides which categories of people are included in diverse groups.
According to the 2010 US Census report, 19% of our population has a disability. According to the “Quick Facts” page of the same Census report, 13% of our population is African-American. Both are in the minority but people with disabilities represent a larger percentage. It’s not okay to discriminate on people based on race so why is it still okay to discriminate against people with disabilities – in our schools, in the workplace and in our communities?
Many students with special needs in my community are forced to use a separate entrance when they enter and exit their school each day. Anytime we make rules that segregate one group from everyone else, that’s discrimination, isn’t it?
Many children with special needs in my community are bused from one end of town to another so they can be warehoused and isolated together, away from the “typical” students, in classrooms with inadequate resources and overburdened teachers. To me, this is veering dangerously close to what we did to African-American children in 1963.
Many children with special needs in my community are forced to rotate schools every two years. Parents are told this is because children with special needs require special bathroom facilities or need access to changing tables. But I suspect the reason for this is to control test scores, rotating students who will presumably score lower on standardized tests than their classmates to mitigate the potential for earning a “failing school” status.
Many children with special needs in my community are forced to charge schools year after year, with no warning and with no recourse…even though many of them are less able to tolerate change…so why is no one demanding that the same 50-years’ worth of resources be spent on insuring the equal treatment of children with special needs? They are every bit as vulnerable and every bit as valuable as any child in any minority group.
And why in the hell does it have to take 50 years to find a way to treat every child – regardless of skin color or ability – with the dignity and respect they deserve?
Maybe you’re not as outraged as I am because you don’t know anyone with special needs. Maybe you don’t have a dog in this fight and don’t know why you should care that people with physical and intellectual disabilities are being mistreated. Maybe you think your “normal” family isn’t impacted by this diversity oversight.
Here’s why you should care: for every $1.00 we spend on interventions and therapies for children with special needs, we save the taxpayer $7.00 over the course of that child’s life (source); and with the autism rates currently at 1 in 63, you could very well have a child or grandchild with special needs in your family one day.
But I hope you will care because EVERYONE has value. I hope you will care because real diversity means that everyone is included. Your family may be average and your family members may be “normal” but I hope you will care because we are all more alike than we are different. I hope you will care because we should hold ourselves accountable for how we treat those who are least able to advocate for themselves.
Someday, your brand of “normal” could be in the minority. Maybe it’s only when we find ourselves outside the accepted norms that we can understand that there’s no such thing as “normal.” Normal…is a dryer setting.
So what do we do? March on Washington, sign petitions, sue our school board and write to lawmakers…sure, all of those things should happen. In the meantime, maybe we could do one simple thing…reach out our hand to someone who is different from us. That could be the beginning of real diversity.