Daily Archives: April 29, 2006

Lessons on Inclusion from a Segregated School, Version 2 (from memory, not an exact reproduction of the first one)


I keep hearing that some disabled people are just too hard to include in regular society. That we have behavior that can’t be tolerated, that nobody will ever put up with the way we look, that there’s nothing we could possibly do, and a lot of other things like that. And I think back to one of the segregated schools I attended.

This one, unlike the others, was not on the grounds of an institution, although it might as well have been. The school did run several group homes, and many students lived in the group homes and were driven to school from there. Many of the other students were on strict behavior programs at home, went to school, and only left the house for segregated day programs. As far as I can tell, the main difference between the life lived by most students there, and an institution, was the distances involved between one part of the institution and another, which were traveled by car instead of on foot. We were still separated from the rest of society the vast majority of the time.

The people at this school were everyone the district didn’t want in its regular schools, as far as I could tell, although there weren’t a lot of purely physically disabled kids there. I don’t know where they all went, since most of them weren’t at regular schools either, but I suspect it had something to do with their insistence on not being lumped in with the “retards”, that over time there was probably a new rule made or something that purely physically disabled (or passing as purely physically disabled) kids had their own schools so they wouldn’t have to be in with the rest of us.

The rest of us included people who as far as I can tell, were everyone else the school system didn’t want in their mainstream classrooms. There were kids there from the psych system. There were kids who were extreme bullies, and who probably bullied normal kids, since bullying disabled kids rarely gets you recognized as doing anything wrong enough to be sent to school with them. There were kids who often got in trouble with the law. There were kids who sexually assaulted other kids. There were kids who were autistic. There were kids who were diagnosed with mental retardation. There were a couple kids with cerebral palsy, and diagnoses of other things too, since without those other diagnoses they’d probably have gone to some school for physically disabled kids. There were kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. There was one kid with narcolepsy. There were kids with Tourette’s or OCD.

It was basically anyone who wasn’t wanted anywhere else. And this school — which was a horrible school, by the way, with almost no good points to it and a lot of illegal things going on, lest I later paint what sounds like a good picture of it — supposedly specialized in the really difficult cases.

I notice something peculiar about this: We were supposedly too difficult for mainstream kids to put up with, but we were somehow not supposed to be too difficult to put up with each other. This is one of the strangest things about segregation to me. Somehow mainstream kids don’t have to put up with us, but we, who supposedly have less people skills, are supposed to figure out how to put up with each other.

The thing is, we did. We had no real choice. We did not always come up with particularly constructive ways to put up with each other, but we did have to come up with ways, nonetheless, because there was no escaping. And I don’t think that non-disabled kids always put up with each other in constructive ways, either, but they do put up with each other. This is not saying we all liked each other, or were all friends, because we weren’t. But we at least tolerated each other, which was more than mainstream kids were ever asked to do for us.

Anyone who thinks this was some kind of utopia for disabled kids, where differences don’t matter, wasn’t there. I was sexually assaulted several times by other students, and then blamed by the teachers for not picking up on the cues that it was about to happen. One time the teachers even found it hilarious and wouldn’t stop laughing about it. Many of the kids teased the kids they called the “retards” or the “special kids”. And while there were a couple teachers who really tried to make a crappy environment work for us, many of the teachers were bigger bullies than all the kids put together, and came up with creative, and probably illegal, punishments for minor infractions. Low expectations were normal there.

But at the same time, something became very clear to me: Unless disabled kids, including kids labeled “socially disabled,” are much, much more innately capable of putting up with each other than non-disabled kids are, then non-disabled kids could have put up with every last one of us, too. If they’d had to. If they hadn’t been encouraged towards a sense of entitlement that they don’t deserve, an entitlement to a life and an education totally free of the ones they consider undesirable.

Because if we were so “distracting” to be in a classroom with, why would we, who were said to be so much more distractable than usual in the first place, have been put in classrooms with each other? If we were so socially incapable, then why would we be expected to do what the “socially skilled” normal kids could not, and find ways of dealing with each other’s presence?

This, of course, extends well beyond kids, and well beyond school (I view school as flawed anyway, for everyone, so I’m not saying much positive about any schools here, just to be clear).

When I got out, I was surprised to see people walking down the street who did not suddenly scream or tic or rock. I was out of place. Many times, other weird people, many of whom had been in the system, would walk up to me, recognizing the look I guess, and start talking, and I’d have a sense of normalcy for awhile. But a lot of the time it was culture shock. Groups of non-disabled teenagers frequently ran up to me and tried to “trick” the “retard”, which is apparently evidence of their very high degree of social skill, or something. I was relieved whenever I saw someone who, by their walk or way of reacting to things or actions, was clearly not a standard-issue person.

But most people either saw me as a walking target or a person to avoid or patronize. The walking target part wasn’t new, but people didn’t really get a chance to avoid each other for being in special ed. We’d have had to have avoided ourselves, for starters, and there was nowhere to go where you could avoid meeting other disabled people. Since the only non-disabled people there were teachers, and a lot of the teachers there weren’t very nice, you wouldn’t even necessarily want to be around solely non-disabled people. Patronizing there came mainly from teachers, not students, although some students of course picked up patronizing from the teachers.

But what I keep coming back to, was we were never allowed a sense of entitlement to not being around each other. That sense of entitlement allows some non-disabled people to view our presence in their world as an optional obstruction to the way things normally are, instead of a part of the way things normally are that they’d better get used to. We had to make concessions for each other all the time, we even had to make concessions to non-disabled people by attending these horrific schools, but non-disabled people were never forced to make any concessions for us, so they view that lack of concessions as something they’re entitled to.

So do some disabled people, I have noticed. Physically disabled people don’t seem to want us in their own segregated schools, and I’ve seen many speak with more horror at being “lumped in with the retarded kids” than at being forcibly segregated in the first place. And many disabled adults, of all kinds, only want some kinds of disabled people, if any, around them.

I’ve talked to autistic adults who manage in the non-autistic work world every day, most of whom were never forcibly segregated, who claim they couldn’t bear being around autistic people who make loud, involuntary noises so all such people just shouldn’t be allowed around them. Now I’ve got as much auditory sensitivity as anyone, but I’m also a loud, involuntary noise-maker at times. Moreover, I was in a school full of autistic people, some of whom had too many noise sensitivities to stand a standard-issue workplace, and somehow we all survived having people there (who were sometimes us, of course, since noise sensitivities and making loud noises are not mutually exclusive) who were out in the courtyard screaming every few minutes, or who squealed and ticced loudly. Not that this prevents me from trying to stop screaming, since I’m aware of noise sensitivities, but I’m under no illusion that people like me are welcome a lot of places until we do figure that one out, and we’re usually the first ones to get thrown out instead of anyone thinking that both sets of a people have a right to be in any particular place and there needs to be compromise.

Likewise, I’ve seen horrible fights break out between people who have particular receptive language problems and people who have particular expressive language problems, both expecting the other to totally capitulate to their needs or else. I kept thinking, this is like listening to a bunch of signing Deaf people take offense to the idea of using interpreters around blind people while blind people insisted on signing Deaf people speaking, while a bunch of deafblind people (like, in this analogy, me, since I don’t always write in ways people can understand and can’t always understand some people’s styles of writing) sat around wondering why people couldn’t just quit taking offense at everyone else’s areas of difficulty and start looking for solutions.

Meanwhile, people with assorted receptive language problems were telling people with assorted expressive language problems to “try harder.” People with assorted expressive language problems were becoming offended and insulted at even an honest description of what reading their writing was like for people who had serious trouble reading it, and insisting that other people must make the effort no matter the cost. People with receptive language problems were in turn becoming offended and insulted at equally honest descriptions of what trying to write in standard English was like for those who had trouble doing it, and insisting that other people must make the effort no matter the cost. The idea of interpreters was rejected by nearly everyone as simply impossible, mainly apparently so they could go back to fighting. I can imagine a lot of problems happening at my school, but not that one.

We didn’t have the option of running off in a huff to some other school. Pretty much, that was the last stop for people schools didn’t want. Any further from that and we’d be in the kind of institutions that have a school somewhere on the grounds, rather than the ‘distributed institution’ that most of us lived in (nominally ‘in the community’, but, only nominally). And the kids weren’t the ones who made those decisions, anyway. Therefore, we had to learn to at bare minimum put up with each other, one way or another. An attitude that I find way too lacking out here, because most people have the “out” of saying “No [insert kind of person here] allowed.”

It seems to me, sometimes, that there were things more “inclusive” about the segregated environments I was in, than the supposedly-integrated ones I encounter in the outside world. There’s this sense, out here, that non-disabled people, and maybe a few of the elite among disabled people, own the world and the rest of us are intruders in it, who must be on our best manners at all times to keep from getting tossed out. Meanwhile, non-disabled people can often get away with, well actually murder is one thing they do often get away with towards us, but even lesser things too like severe bullying… and somehow we’re still the invasive and intrusive ones, because it’s their world, not ours. (This is why I refuse to refer to integration as inclusion.)

So I’ll close with a quote from Chris deBurgh’s “The Getaway”:

Das ist auch unsere Welt
This is our world too
Oui c’est notre monde aussi