To special school, or not to special school? What a gift it is to have the choice!

As a new school year commences, I am reminded of my years and years and YEARS of education. When I say I am a strong advocate for both special schools, which are schools for disabled children only,  and inclusion(inclusion is enabling students with disabilities to attend regular public schools by providing whatever support systems the child needs to succeed in a regular education classroom), people often gasp and say, “You, a staunch proponent of equality, equal access and a fully inclusive society, support special schools! Well, I never!” Ok, maybe the response isn’t quite so dramatic, but the surprise is palpable. Yes, I support the option of multiple school settings because one size does not fit all children, and one size may not even fit the same child for the entire duration of their academic career. Believe me, I know… I was one of those children.

Many are quite surprised when I tell them that I went to Sunbeam School, a school for disabled children, through second grade. When I ask why they are so surprised, they often say that I am so self-confident and independent that they assumed I attended a “regular” school for my entire educational career. I say yes, I am self-confident and independent now, and I am pretty sure that I was born with that spirit. However, developing those skills as a child depends on having people around you who help you hone those skills. While my parents and other adults helped me to hone those skills outside of school, my teachers at Sunbeam reinforced those lessons throughout the school day.

In many ways, Sunbeam was a typical school. We learned the required curriculum, had assemblies, got report cards, had gym class etc. But in many ways, it was different: our largest class had 12 students, we were required to swim once a week in a heated, indoor pool, each classroom had two adults and every teacher was trained to understand the unique needs and abilities of kids with disabilities. While I loved every aspect of that school, it was the last aspect -the specialized training of the teachers- that made the biggest impression on me.

On a typical school day, my classmates and I didn’t focus much on our disabilities. After all, we were 5 and 6 years old. Santa Claus, Rainbow Brite and our birthdays were far more important than our range of motion exercises or using our mobility equipment correctly rather than using them as toys. One of our favorite games was seeing just how far we could throw a crutch(our motto was “Who needs a javelin when you have 2 crutches?”). I cannot tell you how many crutches went home broken after an especially good round of that game!

However, there were moments when the social aspect of disability demanded our attention and served as poignant teaching moments for our teachers. I vividly remember  one day when my 1st grade class went on a field trip. It was the holiday season and our class had lunch reservations at one of the fanciest restaurants in the city. We were so excited! All the little girls had on pretty dresses and hair bows and all the little boys had on dapper suits. We knew we were hot stuff! We went with our teacher and 2 or 3 adult helpers. Before going to the restaurant, we went through a department store and marveled at the holiday display, waved at the Santa Claus on duty and made mental notes of every toy we saw to add to our Christmas list. This was quite the adventure for eight 6 year olds, so we were all ready to eat an awesome meal and talk about whatever 6 year olds talk about as we headed to the restaurant.

When we arrived at the restaurant, it seemed like every adult within a 5 mile radius stopped what they were doing, turned around and stared at us. We all instantly noticed this attention and wanted it to stop. I, like my classmates, was convinced they were staring at us solely because of our disabilities. In retrospect, the restaurant patrons were most likely surprised to see eight exuberant, adorable(if I do say so myself) 6 year olds dressed in their Sunday best, using crutches and wheelchairs and speaking very unclearly and with the aid of sign language, descend upon an upscale restaurant in the middle of a school day.

Once my class got settled at the table, we all began talking about how everyone was staring at us and how we felt about this. A few of my classmates decided if the adults were going to stare, we should give the adults something to stare at by starting a food fight. My teacher, probably sensing an impending mutiny of livid 6 year olds, engaged us by asking “How do you want to be seen?”

One by one, we all chimed in, “We want to be seen like everyone else.”

“We want to be seen for who we are, not for our disability.”

My teacher asked, “Who are you?”

We went around the table and described ourselves, “funny, smart, nice, good artist…”

My teacher then asked, “How can you help the people in this restaurant see who you are?” We all looked at her, stumped by the question. She rephrased it, “Do you think starting a food fight will help people see that you are smart, funny, nice, a good artist…(she listed every attribute we said about ourselves)?”

We shook our heads and said, “No.”

She said, “ Do you think they’ll see you are nice if you are nice to the waiters?’

“Yes!”

“Do you think they’ll see you are funny if you all make each other laugh?”

“Yes!”

“What do you think they’ll see if you start a food fight?”

“Troublemakers who can’t behave,” said one of my classmates.

“That’s right. Remember, people may think the wrong thing about you because you’re disabled, but you have the power to change their perceptions by being who you are!”

Throughout my entire academic career, I learned countless lessons. I am grateful for the education I received at regular schools. That education helped me achieve my dreams, both professional and personal. But, as an adult one of the lessons I remember, and use, the most is one I learned at a special school: I have the power to alter misperceptions(not only about disability, but about race and gender also) simply by being true to myself. Indeed, that lesson empowered me to excel in a regular education setting. Thank you to a country that provides educational options. Thank you Sunbeam School and all those teachers who teach life lessons tailored to the experiences of kids with disabilities.

3 people like this.
  • Roberta Thompkins

    “well i never” i laughed a good hearty laugh at that one!!

  • Victoria Gordon Findlay

    Dear Allison, I am ever grateful for the staff and teachers at Sunbeam School and the preschool you attended. They were dedicated, passionate educators and therapists who everyday sought to bring out the very best in all of their students, regardless of the presenting disability. In many ways they helped me as much as they assisted you. Yes, thanks to a country that provides options.