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Why Do So Many Still Think It's OK to Do This to Our Students With Disabilities?

Frankie, my middle son, came home from school in a bad mood.

“Mom, I saw some of Jaden’s classmates doing chores around the school today. I thought they weren’t supposed to do that anymore. It made me mad, and I want it to stop.”

Frankie and Jaden are 17 months apart in age and have an extremely close relationship, much like twins. Frankie is forever Jaden’s best therapist, best advocate and best friend.

Let’s back up.

Two years ago, Frankie came home from school and casually mentioned he had seen his brother’s class when they “delivered the gym shirts.” Jaden was (and is) in a categorical classroom for children with autism.

I didn’t really understand what Frankie was talking about, so I asked him some questions. It turns out the kids in that class were responsible for doing the gym laundry for the entire school. On further inquiry, I was told they also emptied the paper-recycling bins from the classrooms each week.

Now, I am all for kids having responsibilities, and it just so happens that Jaden does his own laundry and other jobs around our home. But – and here is the key – so do the rest of us. See, I don’t just make my “special” child do the work while the rest of us engage in more interesting pursuits.

It isn’t just the autism program doing the work. The other categorical classes – the rooms for students with cognitive and multiple impairments – are doing it too. Jobs from delivering mail to washing lunch tables and taking out the trash. My older boys tell me of the jobs they see the students with special needs doing around their building as well.

These programs are put in place under the guise of “vocational training” but start in late elementary school – much younger than I believe is appropriate for job training. “Typical” students have the opportunity to take vocational training beginning in 11th grade. Besides, these “jobs” rarely do a good job of targeting actual employment skills. In addition, the students are required to continue to perform the tasks much longer than it takes to achieve mastery. Even though some students admittedly take longer than others to acquire skills, performing these tasks for years is not conferring any measurable educational benefit. This is unpaid labor, not education.

A good measure of whether or not we are doing right by our students with disabilities is to use another protected class as a barometer. For example, would it be OK to have just the girls doing the cleaning jobs? What about just the non-white students? Clearly not.

Then why do so many still think it is OK to do this to our students with disabilities?

I contacted the schools where Jaden attends, and they didn’t agree with me that the practice should be stopped. I also contacted the local ISD, and though the person in charge of IDEA compliance agreed with me in spirit, the program isn’t breaking any laws, so he is powerless to make it stop.

I went back to the schools. I suggested the program be turned into an all-school project, where homerooms rotate responsibilities for taking care of their school. Adding typical peers to the mix would improve social skills – and studies show that “soft skills” are the most important skills for kids to learn in schools if they are going to be employed as adults.

But the general education students don’t have time to do such jobs because of all of the requirements under Common Core, I am told. So essentially, they have better things to do.

Somehow, it makes sense to the schools to take the kids who need the most instruction out of the classroom and occupy them with jobs that confer no measurable educational benefit rather than giving them intensive instruction to help them achieve their best lives.

I have since opted Jaden out of this program and replaced it with real learning opportunities, but wasting the time of these precious students isn’t even the most damaging thing going on here.

The fact that these students are doing menial labor is not lost on the other students – the same students who will grow up to be community leaders, employers and neighbors of the students with disabilities. What is this program showing them? Programs like this promote the attitude among the non-disabled students that kids who are different are inferior – that they do not deserve the same education and can only learn menial tasks.

This is insidiously damaging to the disabled students’ dignity and to their futures.

The students of today are the community of tomorrow; if we are going to have a truly inclusive community in the future, we need to promote fairness, inclusion and equity for all right from the beginning.

These practices of using students with disabilities for free labor must stop. Not just for their sake, but for the sake of the typical students who are being shown this 1984-esque caste-system where they are the Alphas and the disabled students are relegated to Delta status.

We have come a long way in the quest for disability rights – Jaden lives at home with his family, not in an institution, and attends the neighborhood school instead of being shipped across the county to a segregated building — but programs like this “vocational training” show that we still have a long way to go. Even with all of the rules set forth in IDEA, students with disabilities are often still being set apart from their non-disabled peers in ways that are inappropriate, stigmatizing, and destructive.

We need to stand for children with disabilities and their right to the same high-quality education as non-disabled students. Segregation and discrimination hurts everyone in the long run. We need to ensure that everyone belongs in our schools.

Back to Frankie.

I explained that Jaden is not allowed to do the jobs, but that the schools have not stopped this discriminatory practice yet, so for now, it is up to the other parents to opt out their own kids.

I am sad to see him upset but pleased this injustice upsets him. I wish he was living in a better world, but I am so proud he is willing to stick his neck out to make the world better. 

Follow this journey on Bonum Vitae.

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