TWICE LAST YEAR my 13-year old daughter, Amy, participated in school concerts. The significance of her smiling, beautiful face on that stage with 81 typical middle school students hardly seems noteworthy. Her successful, enthusiastic participation was typical. She, by anyone's standards, performed one of the crowd.
This event was noteworthy, however, for my daughter -- in addition to her many talents -- carries with her a backpack of labels and evaluations that mark her as a young person with a disability. However, society's obsession with labels has never invaded our home. For there, Amy shines as daughter and sister, music lover and ace Nintendo player.
In the same way, Amy's presence on that stage had nothing to do with her label of "high-functioning autism." It had everything to do with being part of the world, being part of her community, being part of the ebb and flow of everyday life.
Amy's educational journey began with a separate special education center to which a tiny bus delivered her each morning. The next rung on her educational ladder was an elementary school that had a wing for children with disabilities. Now she is in her neighborhood middle school, two blocks from our home. She is at home in her neighborhood. She should never have had to leave it in the first place.
This, then, is the ground upon which integration is based: all of society's members with disabilities being allowed a choice and the opportunity to come home again. It is also about the assumption that all of us -- all of us with disabilities and all of us without disabilities -- can probably be more and do more than any of us realizes. As a former teacher, I know all too well how children rise and fall to the level of expectation. Our children with disabilities are not different. Aren't we really shortchanging them all when we suffocate them with limits, concentrate on their weaknesses, submerge their strengths? I have long thought so. Amy's experience makes me know so.
Integration is about the opportunity for our children with disabilities and for our society to be made whole and complete. Amy gives to her school as much as she takes from it. From it, she takes real-life experiences, rich in language and socialization that only the real world can provide. To it, she gives an education about differences and about what it really means to be a community.
But as positive as I have been about Amy's experience at this wonderful middle school, I was not prepared for what I saw
during American Education Week. First of all, Amy was totally "at home" and accepted in this school: by faculty, by staff and by the student body. And, second, Amy's gains in communication and social skills are dramatic. More is expected of her in this environment this year, and she has exceeded all of our expectations.
I saw this clearly when she introduced me to several people. Her introductions can only be appreciated if one places them against a backdrop of her perceived weaknesses. She has deficits in language and appropriate social behavior. Some educators have said that children "like Amy" are the least likely to benefit from integration. My husband and I have always believed the opposite. The more a person needs help in language development and social interaction, the more that person needs to be around good role models.
But what I saw and felt as I watched Amy at school was even more than acceptance or increased communication skills. What I saw was a friend asking Amy if I were her mother and Amy responding with an enthusiastic smile. What I saw was a peer talking to Amy in the cafeteria line and Amy nodding "yes" to her every comment. What I saw was an independence and self-confidence I have never seen in my daughter before.
But in spite of this, I understand what many parents of children with disabilities fear. They fear the unknown. They fear their child will be teased or ridiculed. Unfortunately for all our children, living a real life has its risks. For Amy, the benefits of a real life far outweigh any of them. We expect the world to accept Amy, just as we expect the world to accept her brother who has no disability. We expect no more and no less.
What I want as a parent advocating for integration is for people with disabilities to be part of the fabric of this real life. I ask every parent who has a child with a disability to imagine. Imagine what it would be like to have your child in that real world that is a typical school. Imagine the bus and playground and cafeteria as rich and wonderful arenas of learning.
I used to imagine Amy on that stage, singing those songs and basking in the beauty of being a part of it all. Now those dreams are the stuff of reality.
Mary Lou Sheehan Fanelli writes from Catonsville.