Friday, April 13, 2012

Teaching Tolerance?

(I wrote this well-over a decade ago; please excuse excessive use of quotes.)

Officials claim that including special needs children in the activities of the general student population, called 'mainstreaming,' is best for these children as they must learn to cope with and function in 'society' at some point. According to them, being in the general school setting prepares them for future jobs and other life skills. I am one parent that questions this structure.

From the point of view of a parent of a child with special needs, I see how the system fails those students in the same manner that they fail the general student body.

The average school day for a special needs child contains more frustrations than the average child's day. This is because along with the greater difficulty in mastering skills, there is the added social pressure of knowing others are not struggling as they are. And, there is the social stigma of being 'one of those' children.

I remember being in grade school, and I remember those few students who were with the class part of the day, and gone for other parts. We never knew what they left for. Our questions were dismissed with the word 'different.' No one told us what made these children different, or what they did when they left.

At some point in our young minds, those classmates themselves were dismissed as our questions were, and eventually, the word 'different' soon took on the synonymous meaning of weird.

And it is the same way today.

These 'different and weird' children desire to play, and talk and share, just as the 'normal' children do. They learn how to socialize, be supportive, work as a team, and more when interacting with others in forms of play. But special needs children are avoided due to the stigmas attached to them.

While this of course is not extremely pleasant for those 'different' children, it is not really fair to any student. For if mainstreaming is supposed to help children learn to deal with society, shouldn't these children be learning how to deal with each other? Shouldn't we be teaching tolerance and understanding, not just for race or religion, but for all people?

If the schools will not make the effort, then it is up to parents to do the educating here. Talk to your children about what it must be like to live in a wheel chair. Tell them that just because a child is different, does not mean a person isn't fun to be with. Discuss with them how a so-called handicap is not a 'bad thing' to be avoided, that while it offers challenges, it often brings something rare, maybe even a new best friend. Ask them how it would feel to never be asked to a classmates birthday party only because people have never taken the time to know who you are...

For one day, all these students, not just those with special needs, will be getting jobs and living in society as a whole. Shouldn't all students need to learn about differences, understanding and tolerance? Who can say if in the next few years the mechanic working on your son's car won't be able to hear, or if your daughter's boss may have ADD?

Preparing your child now on how to deal with all sorts of people ensures them a more successful future, in every aspect.
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