There were a few things we did well at the small-town central California high school I attended. For starters, we routinely whooped the pants off of the rival football team from the next town over. Our cross-country team always did well in meets. Even our band was regularly invited to march in big name parades all over the state. And while there were a number of areas in which we excelled, I’d be remiss not to point out a weakness: our district so miserably failed in meeting the needs of kids with intellectual disabilities, and in doing so, I think they failed the rest of us, too.
I remember how they kept those kids separated from the typically-developing students. They’d file out to the quad area just as the regular lunch period was ending. Not completely understanding social norms (how could they, when they’d been shut away like that?), they’d act “weird” and attract attention, though not the good kind. More than once, ill-spirited students seized the opportunity to garner laughs at the expense of those who didn’t know any better. To this day, it makes me sad; I wish I’d never witnessed that degree of heartlessness.
Thankfully much has changed in the twenty or so years that have passed since I graduated high school. My own children live in a district in which kids with intellectual disabilities are included—to the extent they are able—in a regular classroom. As early as kindergarten, my kids shared crayons and glue sticks with children of all abilities—no questions asked. I can honestly tell you that they’re all the better for it, too. Whereas I grew up not knowing quite how to interact with differently-abled peers, my kids find it completely normal to come together with peers who have cognitive delays ranging from mild to severe.
Still, there are—and likely always will be—those who choose to demean with their words and actions. But here’s the awesome thing about inclusive classrooms: everybody has a stake. My children are likely particularly sensitive to that sort of behavior, considering they have a sister with Down syndrome. They’ll come home with stories of how they spoke up against classmates who thought nothing of using the word “retard(ed)” as an insult, and how those same classmates would apologize—and mean it—in response to gentle rebuke. Most often, students use the words without even realizing the implications. When they consider that the word might be hurtful to a classmate they’ve known since kindergarten, they think twice before using it again. Simply by including kids of all shapes and sizes and abilities into everyday life, we’ve effectively taught very valuable lessons to those with disabilities and those without.
World Down Syndrome Day will be observed on March 21st. It might not mean anything to you personally, but there is a whole population of people—with Down syndrome and without—that would appreciate your support. Even if the only thing you do is pledge not to use the “R” word, it’s a start. And when it comes to championing a cause, this is a worthy one. But don’t take my word for it; just ask any of the kids in my daughter’s classroom.