When I entered the school system in 1992, my parents were quick to advocate for my right to be educated inclusively. I was physically, not cognitively, disabled. Had I been put in a segregated classroom, I would have been the only verbal child, and the only mobile child. The school administrators believed I could “set an example.” My mother pointed out that I would have no one to be “my example” and enrolled me in mainstream education.
I benefitted greatly from inclusive education, mostly because there was no reason I shouldn’t. However, I became the only physically disabled child in the classroom for all twelve years of school, plus four years of college. In Claiming Disability Knowledge and Identity Simi Linton comments on some of the challenges raised by the current model of inclusive education. She argues that it:
“places the mainstreamed children in the awkward position of having to look and act as nondisabled as possible to maintain their position in general education and, as a result, it marginalizes even more the disabled children who can never play those parts. Further, and rarely discussed, mainstreamed children lose the opportunity to be with other disabled children.”
Linton, Simi (1998-01-01). Claiming Disability (Cultural Front) (Kindle Locations 1017-1019). NYU Press reference. Kindle Edition.”
It’s the second part of this quotation that I wish to focus on, the idea that mainstreaming children keeps them from being able to spend time with their disabled peers. I think this rings true for society in general, not just school. As a kid, I was lucky. My mother worked with other parents of children with disabilities, and we formed a posse of sorts. A group outside of our mainstreamed-school lives, where no one else quite got what it meant to live with a disability. They were the people to whom I could say “Do you ever….?” and the answer would almost always be “yes.” But in school, no one quite got the reason behind my continued absences, the trouble I had keeping up on field trips or the disability terminology I threw around like a second language.
Now that I’m out of the public education system and in the “real world” I find it’s become harder to seek out people with disabilities to relate to. Partially, I think this is a side-effect of the issue Linton raises. Some people with disabilities in the mainstream are encouraged to perform as “nondisabled” and don’t acknowledge that there are aspects of their lives more easily understood by people who have disability in their lives. Disability organizations and support systems I have encountered seem to be populated by those who were not mainstreamed, and were thus allowed to identify as disabled. Yet some of us lead double lives, joking with friends who will pour the soda into the cup for you, but might not quite get how annoying it is to have such crappy fine motor skills.
I don’t think this is the ideal situation. I often look back with longing at the late-eighties when people with disabilities were banding together to fight the civil rights movement. As a nineties-child, one of the ADA generation, I benefited greatly from their struggle, but I also envy their camaraderie. I’m by no means arguing against mainstream education. I’m a product of it. But I shouldn’t have been the only disabled kid on the block. I think it’s important for people with disabilities to support each other, to acknowledge that we can be part of the disability community and successful in a world that isn’t quite as inclusive as it would like to think.