When I was born in 1963, Charlotte was a different place. There were segregated lunch counters, buses and schools. Eighteen years later, I graduated from West Charlotte High School, where students of all races succeeded together. We developed friendships never imagined a decade earlier. I look back at that segregated time, and wonder what we were thinking.
Segregation and discrimination continue for another segment of our population, the intellectually disabled. My 12-year-old son, Nick, has epilepsy, Asperger syndrome, apraxia and an intellectual disability. Recently, the new administration at his charter school insisted that he be removed from the regular classroom and be placed in a special education classroom. The teachers said they adored my son, but it was not reasonable to keep him in the classroom with his peers. The most appropriate course for him was to be in a segregated classroom where he could receive one-on-one instruction.
This makes sense, right? You would not place a student in an advanced calculus class if he has just learned his multiplication tables. Besides, having to modify lesson plans for my son would interfere with teaching other students.
Evidence-based research turns this conventional wisdom upside down. In the past 30 years, there is no study that proves that special education classes are superior to total inclusion. Studies show higher achievement scores for children with special needs when they are mainstreamed. In addition, research has shown that including students with disabilities resulted in either positive or neutral effects for students without disabilities. When all students are learning together and given the appropriate instruction and supports, all students can excel. If students with intellectual disabilities perform better in the regular classroom and their presence does not affect other students’ education, then placing them in segregated classrooms is discrimination.
Nick is the happiest child I know. He loves school. Although he is nonverbal, Nick is blessed with the ability to make people smile. It is beautiful to see his classmates treat him with kindness and respect. Removing him from this environment is unfair to Nick and reduces opportunities for his classmates.
Every student has a right to powerful instruction and to be treated with dignity. This requires a paradigm shift where the standard is inclusion of all children as full members of the general academic and social community. It is my hope and prayer that in the next 10 to 15 years, these special education classes will become relics of history like the segregated lunch counters and buses of the ’60s and we can look back and wonder what we were thinking.
Copsis practices internal medicine in Matthews.