On April 20, the Center for Assistive Technology and Inclusive Education hosted a statewide conference on disability issues titled “Moving on: Promoting a Successful Transition to College or Community” at the College. The conference lasted most of the day and included 22 breakout sessions and six hands-on workshops.
The keynote speaker for the conference was Norman Kunc, an internationally recognized disability rights advocate. Kunc gave a presentation focusing on the detrimental effects of the segregation approach to educating children with special needs.
“The debate is not around inclusion,” Kunc said. “The debate is around the idea of full inclusion: the idea that all disabled kids should go into regular classes in regular schools.”
According to Kunc, the segregation approach to educating special needs children rests on the premise of providing them with the skills necessary for integration into the community.
Kunc related the shortcomings of this method through personal experiences. While attending school in Toronto, Kunc, disabled by cerebral palsy, was placed in a class of all non-speaking students with the same disability. This class was called “communications class.”
“(This) not only violates every education principle, it violates common sense,” Kunc said. “We do not segregate for the benefit of the disabled.”
Kunc said the best way to educate students with special needs is by fully integrating them into the education process.
“No matter how good of a swimming instructor you are, you can’t teach someone to swim in the parking lot of a swimming pool,” Kunc joked. He said disabled students need to be part of the classroom, where they can witness appropriate behaviors and model them.
Early in his education, Kunc was enrolled in a speech therapy class. He had been petitioning school administrators for enrollment in a regular high school and informed his speech therapist of this desire.
“What’s the point of speaking clearly if you have no friends to speak to?” Kunc asked jokingly.
After his enrollment in a regular high school, Kunc said through interaction with other students his speech improved dramatically. “Segregation undermined my ability to take something like speech therapy and apply it in a regular environment,” he said.
Kunc urged educators to advocate for the rights of the disabled and to push for full integration and equality in the education process. “You’re caught in the movement for social justice,” Kunc said. “You’re not just educators.”
In attendance at the conference were special needs educators and professionals from across the state. According to Ramona Kopacz, a learning disabilities specialist at Ramapo College, the education process for special needs children is especially critical. “For a lot of these students, (the transition) winds up being a culture shock,” Kopacz said. She explained that this is because special needs students are taken from a segregated education system that guarantees success to an integrated education system that does not.
Kopacz said the role of a special needs educator is often that of “a coach or a cheerleader,” and that it is important not to give in to frustration. Kunc said full integration of special needs students into education would be more difficult, and potentially more frustrating, than segregation.
“When it comes to disabled kids, do we want to do what’s best,” Kunc asked, “or do we want to do what’s easiest?”