A Will and A Way | GUEST OPINION

Lately I have been meeting more and more families who are fighting a civil rights war that one might have thought had been won decisively four decades ago.

It was in 1971 that a group of bold and innovative parents fighting rejection of their children by public schools in Seattle pushed HB 90, the Education for All Act, through the Washington State Legislature. This pivotal legislation requires all public schools in the state to provide equal educational opportunity to all children regardless of ability. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, modeled after Washington State’s, became a federal law in 1975.

Yet here is Deanna sitting in my office just a few weeks ago telling me the story of her son Dylan, a bright young man with Down syndrome and assorted other challenges, who was placed in isolation — essentially solitary confinement — by middle school administrators who misunderstood Dylan’s unique learning style and behaviors.

Dylan quite understandably refused to go to school any more. So Deanna embarked on an odyssey that involved postponing her own education for a year, learning to cite chapter and verse from dozens of Washington State laws, assistance from a legal aide nonprofit, and endless hearings and negotiations with school district officials. After 18 months of doubts, tears, anger, the hugs and prayers of friends and family, and (above all) the steely determination of a mother, Deanna won her appeal.

The school district was forced by legal settlement to move Dylan to another school, to provide him the support he needs to be successful, and to include him with the other students. Dylan is thriving now and was recently one of four students (the other three are “typical” learners) presented with an award for academic improvement by the principal in front of the entire student body.

Or my friends in a nearby suburb who are suing their school district for not teaching their teenage daughter Brooke who has autism. Here is another bright young person separated from the other students, written off as unteachable, not assigned homework, not allowed even to write a junior thesis along with the other students. How bright is Brooke? Bright enough to write a junior thesis anyway — a reflection on what it feels like to be disrespected and isolated from the other students. Bright enough to bring copies for everyone at a recent Individual Education Plan assessment meeting involving her parents, teachers, and case manager. Bright enough to require everyone at the meeting to read it. Bright enough to go around the table and ask each person by name how it made them feel.

Or the brave parents of another nearby suburb who are members of a Special Education PTSA devoted to the unique needs of their children with special needs, an organization whose very existence speaks to the separation that characterizes our educational system and our society. This Special Education PTSA is petitioning the Washington State PTA to endorse a resolution opposing the routine segregation of children with unique learning styles and special needs.

To end the routine segregation of children. So simple and yet so complex, this is an issue with a thousand interdependent threads. From our conditioning and fears and the assumptions we make about people, to our longstanding cultural pattern of competition that celebrates survival of the fittest, to the very real constraints of money and space and expertise faced by our public schools, to paradoxical questions of what inclusion versus segregation means for each individual child. How can we even begin to have this conversation?

In the meantime, oppressed parents are forced to fight, finagle, plead, or negotiate every day for what their children are already legally entitled to and have been for 40 years. The pioneering activists of 1971 made the world a better place for everyone by speaking truth to power and mounting an audacious advocacy campaign that enshrined the right of all children to a public education. Changing the law was a monumental milestone, but as with so many social justice movements it was not enough.

Four decades later, the challenge becomes influencing the consciousness of our community by creating opportunities for people of all abilities to engage each other in learning, work, and play and experience for themselves the extraordinary value that results. People simply need to experience each other and the unique way each of us brings value and evokes value in others. When the community wants to include Dylan and Brookes badly enough, solutions will be found.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.


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