Look at these images of people:
At the beginning of a course about inclusive education, I was asked these questions:
1) Are these individuals valued equally in society? Why or why not?
2) Where do we derive our basis for determining value of an individual?
3) When we first look at these individuals, which individuals do we perceive as successful and why?
4) What does it mean to be successful?
5) Who determines if one person has more purpose in life than another person?
How would you answer these questions?
However you answer the questions, the exercise is meant to challenge your perspectives about people.
What if I told you that the pictures are part of the same story. The man in the top picture is actually the CFO of a large company and he just completed a presentation to the people in the lower picture. How would that affect your perspective?
In American society, things like beauty, youth, perceived ability and whiteness are given privilege. The man in the first picture appears to have a disability. With that comes the negative perception that he is unable to do many of the things that others can do. That assumption is made based on how he looks or communicates. His abilities could be numerous and quite valuable, but often people are judged by others based on what they can see coupled with preconceived notions and stereotypes.
How do you measure what a society values in people? I don’t know, but I would suggest that society’s values can be reflected in the society’s treatment of different people. How people with disabilities have been treated in public education institutions of the past has been documented many times over. Before the IDEA, it was common to exclude children with disabilities based on beliefs that children with disabilities did not or could not benefit from instruction. If a child had a condition that caused involuntary movements or vocalizations, they were often labelled as disruptive and disturbing to other students and teachers. This became another reason to exclude them from education.
The practice of exclusion was often supported by the courts. An often-cited case, Watson v. City of Cambridge, 1893, is illustrative of these phenomena. In this case, “the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a child who was ‘weak in mind’ and could not benefit from instruction, was troublesome to other children, made ‘unusual noises,’ and was unable to take ‘ordinary, decent physical care of himself’ could be expelled from public school.” (Yell, 2016)
The exclusion of people with disabilities from school suggests that the society does not believe that these people can contribute in positive ways to the society. Of course, these ideas are directly contradicted by the mere existence of such people as Samuel Bern, Steven Hawking, and Steven Spielberg. They are examples of people with different disabilities who have contributed greatly to our society. Find out about Samuel Berg below:
Though Sam has passed on, his story remains inspirational. He shows what a student with disabilities can achieve despite the challenges in their lives. Our society must provide opportunities for all young people to be the best people that they can be. An inclusive education helps our society to move towards that goal.