This summer, I’m doing some disability-related reading for an independent study course. The first book I’m tackling is No Pity: People With Disabilities For a New Civil Rights Movement by Joseph Shapiro. Over all, I’m enjoying this book and finding it educational, though I will warn that it was written before professionals stopped using the r-word, so there’s a lot of that.
However, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the way the author discusses inclusion in schools. I support inclusive education obviously, but there are arguments in favor of inclusion that I think are terrible. Here’s one – I’ll call it the modeling argument. In No Pity, Shapiro quotes the parents of an intellectually disabled girl as saying “When Rachel is placed with retarded children she tends to act retarded.” For this reason, they prefer that their daughter be educated alongside “her regular friends” – presumably, after being placed with them, she tends to act more “regular.”
This is the modeling argument in a nutshell: kids imitate what they see. Place disabled kids exclusively with other disabled kids, and they will act disabled. Place them with normal kids, and they will learn to act normal. The assumption here is that “acting disabled” simply comes from a place of not knowing any better – from a tragic separation from proper, non-disabled “peer models.” No one considers whether “acting disabled” might in fact indicate a healthy level of self-acceptance. Similarly, “acting normal” is assumed to come from a benign process in which disabled kids befriend and observe non-disabled kids. No one considers the mechanism by which this normalization is often brought about – the bullying from peers, teachers, and parents that chips away at the rough edges. No one considers that passing is an exhausting effort which is often fueled by fear and self-hatred.
The modeling argument is about hope, but it’s the wrong hope – hope that integrated education will turn “retarded” children into “regular” ones. It’s also about fear. It is about the dread that disabled children, if allowed to socialize, will feel a sense of comfort and belonging among other disabled people. They might even come to view their natural ways of thinking, moving, and behaving as just that – natural. And we can’t have that.
So we come to see the mixture of disabled and non-disabled kids in an inclusion classroom in a surprisingly malicious way. The point is not that children of different abilities will learn to accept each other – just the opposite. According to the modeling argument, the point of inclusion is that disabled children will learn from the normies the one and only correct way to behave.
Shapiro argues that keeping Special Education segregated sets kids up for failure, because “less [is] expected of students segregated in separate classes.” I’m sure this is true. However, I believe that inclusion for the sake of normalization – the kind of inclusion supported by the modeling argument – sets children up for failure in a different way.
In a classroom with two sets of children – those modeling correct behavior and those being modeled for – disabled children will also suffer from the teacher’s low expectations of them. Disputes between disabled and non-disabled kids will consistently be resolved in the non-disabled child’s favor. Rules governing behavior will be enforced more strictly for disabled children, and relaxed for the “peer models.”
This unequal treatment can create a culture which sees bullying as a helpful way to “correct” visibly disabled behavior. It can lead teachers to use public humiliation against students, or lower students’ grades for failing to suppress symptoms of their disabilities. I have seen these dynamics play out in programs, as well as within families, which use non-disabled peers as “behavior models.” I have experienced some of this treatment first-hand.
In addition to making the classroom less safe for disabled students, an emphasis on normalization reduces the benefit of inclusion for their non-disabled classmates. In my opinion, one of the great things about inclusion is that it can teach non-disabled kids to interact respectfully with people of all abilities. However, it’s difficult for kids to learn this lesson when they are regarded as superior “peer models” or encouraged to bully their classmates into acting more like them.
I don’t think that assimilation is the only alternative to segregation. I don’t think that the point of inclusion is to teach disabled children to act “normal” in an enabled world. I believe that the point of inclusion is to create a different kind of world, and I believe there are ways of supporting inclusion that don’t lead to creating the kind of world I want to live in.