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In Defense of Vocational Programs for Students With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

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Recently, The Mighty published a piece by Mandy Anderson lambasting her son’s school for tasking intellectually and developmentally disabled students with emptying recycling bins, delivering mail, washing lunch tables, taking out the trash, and other jobs. Anderson claims these activities “confer no measurable educational benefit” and “rarely do a good job of targeting actual employment skills.”

As I read the post, I thought of my 17-year-old son, Jonah, who at that very moment might have been engaged in similar work at his private school for students with autism. Jonah’s program is a community-based secondary school whose students spend part of each day at various work sites. In the past three years, Jonah has assembled pizza boxes, watered plants, rolled silverware, set tables, filled ice buckets, and stocked coolers. Each new job had to be broken down into countless steps by his teachers, the mastery of each component reflecting critical development in skills my son has struggled with all his life, including communication, auditory processing, compliance, frustration management, focus, and persistence.

But instead, Anderson thinks Jonah should be receiving “the same high-quality education as non-disabled peers” because “segregated” programs like his are “inappropriate, stigmatizing, and destructive.”

If Anderson’s son is capable of academic work, then he should of course receive whatever support is necessary for him to succeed in a mainstream class. No one supports the kind of exploitation that trapped thousands of intellectually disabled people in institutions because of the cheap labor they provided. But it saddened me to read yet another blanket assertion that everyone with I/DD can thrive in a mainstream environment. Jonah’s impairments in language and cognition are simply too significant. Instead of reading Shakespeare like his peers, who are seniors in high school, he is working to understand the plot of board books. He shows no conception of abstract subjects like government, geography, astronomy, religion, and philosophy. Dropped into a typical 12th grade class — even with an aide and simplified worksheets — he would likely bang on the desk, refuse to stay in his seat, and bounce up and down reciting lines from “Sesame Street” videos. That placement would be “inappropriate, stigmatizing, and destructive.”

Anderson worries that vocational programs like Jonah’s “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.” But significant cognitive disability can be extraordinarily limiting. And that is a reality faced by many individuals with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities that can’t be glossed over by blaming low expectations, bad parents, or lazy teachers.

Even if typical kids don’t see their peers with I/DD performing simple jobs around school, they’ll certainly see adults mopping the floor in McDonald’s, bagging groceries in the supermarket, and taking tickets in a movie theater. So perhaps instead of dismissing “menial” labor, we need to teach our children that all work is valuable and respectable, from trash collection to brain surgery. I’m proud of how much Jonah has learned, and I will never stop searching for ways he can contribute to his community—and if our choices aren’t the ones others would make, that’s fine. But we shouldn’t turn our noses up at them, either. There is no Right Answer: just Jonah’s answer and your child’s answer, and hopefully one day an answer for each of the 6.5 million individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in this country. This is why we must fight to expand educational, housing, and employment options instead of imposing a one-size-fits all solution on such a diverse population. More options, less judgment: isn’t that the future we want for all our children?

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: September 22, 2016
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