This will be the first blog post that I and others contribute to NJCIE’s website. We have been working hard to rethink and restructure the website to support families, schools and communities in building inclusive schools and communities. The blog will be an integral part of this journey. This new start for our website made me think back to when I first became focused on inclusion.
It was 1994 and I was beginning a new career as an attorney at a nonprofit law firm after teaching secondary social studies for several years. I once had a student with hearing loss in my eighth grade class, but that was not the basis of my epiphany on inclusion. My “aha” moment came in 1994 when I was representing a charming little third grader, Margeaux, who had a developmental disability that impacted her learning and movement and way she interacted with others. This was soon after the landmark Oberti case which made clear that consideration of inclusion was to be the rule for all children, regardless of their disability. Her mom was a very positive, energetic person and passionately determined to make sure this little girl had every opportunity to be included with her peers. She helped me see that any other result was not right!
Fortunately, I determined the facts of this case made it clear that there was every reason to include this little girl in general education. She made progress in first and second grade general education classrooms, although the school had included her reluctantly at the insistence of her persistent, persuasive mom. This was all very new to the teachers and they struggled, but Margeaux became a welcomed classmate in their classrooms. With opportunities to model the other children, her language and social interaction skills improved; she had friends and connections. I remember a wonderful photo of her dressed in costume at the school’s Halloween parade. She was a part of the class in every sense. But in third grade, the school persuaded Margeaux’s mom to move her to a well-known separate special education school for students with more complex needs. The neighorhood school did not feel confident they were doing the right thing. Feeling under siege and stressed, mom relented.
After two months at the special education school, it was obvious to all that Margeaux had regressed. In addition to being sad because she missed her friends and teachers, she had to travel some distance on a bus. She had lost some language skills; her social interactions had deteriorated and she had picked up some mannerisms that were not present before. This was not the outcome the mom or her district had expected or desired. Back she came to her elementary school with new supports we had helped to put into place. It took a while for her to unlearn the behaviors she had picked up in her short time in the separate school. But with fits and starts, she was included in the district’s general education classrooms throughout her public school career. She had her mom’s relentless support and my periodic involvement to add an extra boost of legal encouragement. Margeaux’s classmates, having known her for years, were her greatest supporters and actually wrote letters to the administrators in high school when we again had to work to ensure she was included as much possible in their classes. More than the adults, her friends knew who she was and included her as one of their classmates. E-mail was newly popular at the time. Margeaux’s communication skills improved immensely as she e-mailed back and forth with her classmates. Her quirky sense of humor, that her classmates loved, came through as she was able to express her thoughts more easily through writing than speaking. Her teachers also came to appreciate her sense of humor.
Like many of her high school classmates, gym was not Margeaux’s favorite subject. One day the class was running laps around the track to warm up. After one lap, Margeaux told her teacher she could do no more, she was “lap tose intolerant.” That cracked us up . The moment I heard this story, I realized why this work is so important and ALL that had been accomplished. Margeaux’s parents, teachers and her peers had given her the opportunity to thrive, in spite of doubts and fears. They got to know a young lady with wonderful depth, humor and spirit. Since Margeaux, I never looked back.