During the past few weeks, I have been blessed to reunite with old friends going back over 3 decades. In England, I reunited with friends from England, Scotland and France, with whom I worked as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Gev in Israel during the winter of 1979-80. In Idaho, I reunited with an old high school friend who lives in Delaware now, as we hiked in the White Cloud Mountains.
These reunions helped me recall how important friendships are not only in my own life, but how critical they are for anyone who desires to live a fulfilled life in what can often be a challenging world. Yet, through my many years of advocacy for children with disabilities, I have learned that one of the biggest challenges for them is whether typically developing children will welcome them into their circle of friends.
In their book, Friends and Inclusion, the authors correctly describe a significant flaw in our disability service system:
People who are at risk are often seen by the public, community organizations, and families as first and foremost needing services and the help of professionals. While this response is sometimes useful, it can impede the development of meaningful friendships. Our society for the most part still assumes that people with disabilities mostly require services rather than a rich life in community with friends.
They go on to point out that:
The opportunity to have real friends occurs through participation in family, school, neighbourhoods, and other places where people gather. Real friendships are genuine caring relationships where people share common interests, love and respect each other, and want to spend time together. Contrary to the idea that these kinds of friendships can only happen naturally, our experience is that discovering and building real friendships often requires intentional or deliberate action.
Recently, a child therapist who works with many children with disabilities expressed shock to me that Wisconsin still has publicly funded segregated schools in which all the children who attend those schools have disabilities. Indeed, there are 3 such schools, Lakeland School, in Walworth County, Syble Hopp, in Brown County, and Fairview South, in Waukesha County. While these schools and the parents who send their children there will certainly extol their virtues, among the reasons I have represented many parents who do not want their children with disabilities to attend these segregated schools, is that they deny the opportunity for their children to make friendships with typically developing peers.
As educator Helene McGlauflin notes:
Establishing friends for students with severe and profound disabilities is best done intentionally. Like most schools, our school has always grappled with how to integrate students with very special needs into the regular classroom and the entire school with dignity, respect and an awareness of their particular educational needs.
Purposefully creating a group of friends for each student has given our inclusion efforts more structure and focus. It has required special education teachers and regular education teachers to more carefully coordinate when, how and why the special needs students are in the classroom, examining times and activities when the friends can help with the integration process.
Thus, placing children with disabilities in segregated schools denies them the opportunities to make friendships with typically developing peers. Indeed, this can have long lasting economic and safety implications, as it is common knowledge that most people gain economic success through networking with friends, and it is far more likely that a friend will assist a person with disabilities in a time of need than a stranger.
In the name of friendship, which we all treasure, it is time to end the public funding of segregated schools.