I recently met a long-time acquaintance from our circle of “Down syndrome friends.” This woman is the parent of a young child with Down syndrome who had recently entered the school system. When I asked her which program the child was attending, she turned colors and stammered, "I'm afraid to tell you! You're against inclusion." I was mortified! “Inclusion” is precisely my goal for my child and for his peers with special needs. However, inclusion has many aspects. Inclusion also has many successes and many flops.

Inclusion in the “shul” across the street from our home works gloriously (see “Greetings From…”Issue #9). Inclusion in social and recreational activities within school and yeshiva settings works wonders. Just ask Moishey and his friends about the good time they had (and the warmth with which they were accepted) at the Chanukah Party at Yeshiva Tiferes Elimelech in Boro Park, Brooklyn.

I have yet to see academic inclusion succeed in the true sense of the two words ­ ‘successful inclusion'. I reiterate my comments from the past; I am not a professional. I am only a parent. I speak my own mind and deduce my opinion by observing and analyzing my own child's experiences and those of my close friends.

First and foremost, we must realize that we send our children to school to learn the 3 R's ­ Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. Of course, equally important in the learning process is for them to acquire midos tovos and develop good social skills. However, these personality attributes are not only mastered during the time set aside for academics. They are achieved during recess break, lunch, yard play, assembly, and performances. In turn, Torah studies and academics are learnt primarily during class sessions.

What I am leading to is the separation of these two categories. When a child with special needs is placed into a mainstream, regular education class, so the child can develop ‘socially', we are burdening the special needs child, the class, the teacher, and we are not acknowledging the true value of brilliant curriculums.

Of all the parents and educators who have, in the past, written to DSAU about the personal inclusion successes they have experienced, none of the children in question was past second-grade level. In truth, we have children with special needs, some of them already ten-years old, who are sitting in second-grade classrooms. Some of these children physically tower above their classmates and wear orthodontic appliances while their “peers” are still losing baby teeth. Furthermore, these special children sit with assistants alongside them to help them “keep up.” Related services, including therapies and resource room help, take place during regular school sessions, and the special child is the only student who leaves class during these sessions to obtain these individual services. Successful inclusion?This is “exclusion” at its best! In how many more ways can we make the differences between this child and his/her normal classmates so obvious?! What about the curriculum? For example, many math concepts, which are too abstract for a child with mental retardation, are either watered down or done away with completely. Thus, while the class is engaged in some of those “ambiguous” lessons, the special student is doing something entirely different or leaving the room for related services. Inclusion?! When? Where? Why?

Last summer, my family had a bungalow that was located directly across the colony “shul” that housed the boys' “cheder”. When Moishey completed his eight-week sleepaway camp program, he joined us in the country. On the first morning there, while “davening”, Moishey heard the loud voices of the “cheder” class davening together in the “shul”. He followed their voices and entered the shul. I followed him. The Rebbe winked to me that it was fine and that we should give him a chance. Moishey “davened” along beautifully, and it was a wonderful morning. After “davening”, I picked him up, and the Rebbe invited Moishey back for the following morning. The next day, we repeated the procedure, but we decided to try leaving Moishey there for the learning period too, for as long as he would cooperate.

After “davening”, the Rebbe started a “chumash” lesson. At that point, it was very strange to Moishey. After sitting still for five minutes, Moishey raised his hand and said, "Rebbe, you want to see something funny?" Moishey then stood up and proceeded to hop around like a bunny rabbit. The children exploded into laughter and the Rebbe himself had to struggle to maintain a straight face. When the Rebbe walked Moishey back to our bungalow, we heard strange noises coming from the direction of the “shul”. The Rebbe summed it up, "I now have thirty-three bunny rabbits hopping around the “shul!"

I know what the advocates of classroom inclusion would argue ­ ‘This was not the proper way to do it. You just pushed Moishey into a classroom without proper supports' That is certainly true, but the curriculum and the pace would still not be appropriate, even with a team of assistants and back-up “shadows”.

Why don't we want to accept special education as a giftt? We are not banishing our children to “chayrim” by enrolling them into special ed programs! We are giving them the necessary education and life-skills so that they will eventually be ready to embrace the mainstream world.

I just had a telephone conversation with the mother of an eight-year-old child who has Down syndrome. The young boy is very bright and is in the most advanced class in his special ed program. He is currently with eleven-year-olds in one class. The mother, a very intelligent, feet-on-the-ground-woman, complained to me that even in that class her child is not seriously challenged . I asked the obvious,”Why don't you consider placing him into a mainstream yeshiva class with a shadow?" This very bright, practical woman answered, "No, I wouldn't. Even though my child is so brilliant and can absorb so much, he still needs to have information presented to him in a ‘special education' manner. Special educators understand our children's weaknesses and know how to focus on those areas. For example, abstract concepts are difficult, so my son's teachers and private Rebbes use many visual reinforcements. This is not the usual in a class full of ‘normal' students."

This woman made so much sense. She is not trying to hide behind society's ‘Inclusion' banner. She assesses her son in a realistic manner and tries to do what is really in his best interest. In my opinion, whoever devised academic inclusion will certainly have to “re-write” those “laws” for my family and countless others who simply cannot make sense of this bizarre struggle.

This article first appeared in issue #10 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us

Click here to see more articles in the Controversy section
Click here to see the other articles in issue #10 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us