My comments about inclusive education and the teachers’ strike in British Columbia

Here is my email to Rick Cluff (CBC Morning edition) in response to the Sept 4 broadcast in the series called Dis/Integration. You can find it on the cbc radio website. I was troubled by a lot of the very negative framing of children with disabilities. It is a long email but they did read out some of my comments the following morning. Here it is with the segments they chose to read in bold.

Dear Rick,
I listened to today’s segment of Dis-integration with growing dismay. The almost constant negative framing of children with disabilities that I heard repeatedly in both conversations with your two guests this morning stands in stark contrast to the hugely positive goals of inclusive education specifically and social justice more generally. Here are some of the words and phrases I heard in relation to children in our communities.

“the most difficult to teach”
“prescription for disaster”
“growing level of violence”
“range of behaviours that staff face”
“all kinds of behaviours, syndromes, medically fragile…”
“problem”
“regular classroom with so-called normal children”
“these children”
“violence”
“autism”
“Fetal Alcohol syndrome”
“unable to express themselves”
“children exhibiting violent behaviour”
“they’re frightened (of the children exhibiting this behaviour)
“evacuate”
“safety concern”

I listened to the broadcast again this evening just to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting or if I had missed something positive someone might have said about inclusive education. Nothing. Not one word was said about the importance of continuing this fight. Nothing but negatives about “special needs children” and what teachers and education assistants “have to face” when dealing with them. I hope you are able to recognize how incomplete (and dangerously inaccurate) this picture is. Even with the appalling cuts and continued threats, those who care about the inclusive education have made huge strides and continue to work tirelessly towards more inclusive schools and classrooms (and society), beginning with our youngest citizens. This work is for betterment of everyone, not just children labelled with disabilities and their families. Research has repeatedly proven that inclusion is best for everyone; children with and without disabilities can and do thrive when inclusion is done properly.

At one point in the show, one of the guests said that she could not remember children like these in school when she was in school. There is a shameful reason that adults around our age cannot remember being schooled alongside children like the ones who now appear in our public schools. I was educated in the 1970s as well. My age peers with disabilities were in one of two places: in segregated separate schools or in live-in institutions. Neither of these options heralded particularly positive learning or social outcomes.

Persistent negative framing of disability and the “problems” associated with educating “special needs” students threaten to undo all the progress that has been made in terms of social justice and access to education for those who used to be deemed wholly incapable of learning. Your broadcast perpetuated many of these very persistent, prejudiced views. There are many people who are entirely comfortable with the idea that children with “special needs” should be segregated once again. McBride practically stated so herself when she said “very often the regular class setting is not the most appropriate place for them…” Anyone with any real commitment to the goals of inclusive education would not say that so blithely. While McBride seems to have a good grasp of the complexities of funding inclusive education, I am not entirely sure she sees the socially just value in it at all. If she does recognize the intrinsic value of inclusive education then she should have said so, loudly.

I am no Pollyanna. I have a child with a very significant disability and know better than anyone that we as a society have a long way to go before children like mine (and many of the children referred to so negatively by your guests) are fully included in society across contexts (schools, communities, places of employment etc.). However, I believe very much that my son’s life has been and will continue to be markedly better than the life he would have had if he had been born in the 1960s. Inclusive education has made and will continue to make strides, will continue to be done to the best of our ability by those of us who care about social justice. There was and never has been any justice in separating children because of perceived “differences”. Residential schools for First Nations children are an example of this kind of injustice.

Inclusive education can of course be called a work in progress but I maintain that it will ONLY progress when the general public are presented with balanced views about the value of inclusion. Today’s broadcast was a serious disappointment in this regard. I would be happy to recommend some successful inclusion stories so that listeners can learn how this work is being done, can continue to be done and moreover MUST be done for our continued move towards becoming a socially just, inclusive society. I stand with my children’s teachers and the work they have done and continue to do, in spite of everything the government is doing to undermine them. I am hoping that the general public are able to grasp the importance of restoring (and continuing to build) an education system that is inclusive of all the children in our communities. Balanced broadcasts will go a long way to achieve this aim and I urge you to explore a broader view of this topic, one that reflects on the value of building an inclusive society and the role that our teachers play in this regard.

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2 responses to “My comments about inclusive education and the teachers’ strike in British Columbia

  1. Excellent letter. One of the things that screws this whole discussion up is this broad concept of “special needs” and people’s assumptions about it. Many of the negative words you quoted above are more accurately assigned to kids with BEHAVIORAL problems, not disabilities. Of course some kids with disabilities have behavioral issues too, but many other kids with strong healthy bodies and age typical intellect have also learned very poor habits that make learning difficult and managing in the classroom harder. These kids also have “special needs”, yes, but for other reasons than disabilities. Then there are the kids who can’t speak English or who are bored and easily distracted (that was me!) or who are well ahead of their age mates in their academic capabilities. Are we really going to have a class for each any every variety of learner? What about if we did have “disabled” classrooms. How would we fit the kid with high functioning ID and the non verbal motion limited kid in the same class as the blind kid? So those would be separate classrooms too. Conclusion – every kid needs an individualized learning plan that can be delivered in properly staffed integrated classrooms WHICH IS WHAT INCLUSIVE ADVOCATES HAVE BEEN SAYING ALL ALONG. Duh.

  2. Fabulous letter! Cam Culham sent me a link. I’m a parent, graduate student, and college instructor. I have been struggling with the narrative being used in this dispute for some time now and your letter nails it!

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