When my older brother, Archie, was small, my parents realized South Carolina’s public special education program was not a good fit for him. Because Archie has Down syndrome, he was placed in a special education classroom. This experience confirmed that the state’s existing special education classrooms embrace the antiquated idea that people with disabilities are less-than. The state subscribes to the dated recommendation that people with disabilities shouldn’t be exposed to an academic curriculum. The 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Act “requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs.”
While this act is a step in the right direction, it instructs schools to make placement recommendations based on a community’s definition of typical development rather than considering each students’ unique abilities apart from their community. In this sense, classroom placements are made backwards.
Because I was born into Archie’s world, I see the world inside-out. Here in the margins at the edge of expectations, I’ve learned disability isn’t bad; it’s part of the human condition. Here we understand it’s not important to make ourselves smaller to fit inside the community, rather the community needs to make itself bigger to fit around us.
In middle school my peers and I had the unique experience of learning alongside Archie in our parish school. He was fully included in my traditional classroom where teachers learned to accommodate his learning differences. Although a few teachers initially struggled to find a way to meaningfully include my brother, they soon learned he, like anyone with a disability, is more alike than different. Our peers learned this, too, and as Archie learned from their behaviors, they learned from his.
After our classmates got to know Archie, no one minded his prattling on about time zones and countries, poems and television schedules. They found it endearing, not weird, when Archie expressed his enthusiasm for something special by skipping around the room and flapping his arms, his excitement like glitter slipping through his fingertips, floating sparkles that traveled around the room until they landed on our school uniforms and attached to us in a way we could never really brush off. My brother no longer spent his school day in a classroom at the end of a long hallway, isolated from his typical peers. Instead he spent it seated across the room from me. Archie wasn’t different anymore; he was one of us. Our classroom reflected our community. With inclusivity, we embraced diversity.
During our middle school graduation, Archie received a standing ovation. A classmate’s father stood first, clapping and whistling between two fingers, and everyone jumped out of the church’s pews to join him. Kindergartners to eighth-graders, teachers to administrators, and parents to parish members applauded Archie’s accomplishment. As he ran to the altar to receive his diploma, Archie’s blue graduation cap fell off his head. My classmates and I laughed when Archie stopped to pick up the cap, stooping to the ground in his slow and deliberate way. But the laughter didn’t come because we thought he was less-than. Instead it came because our classmates had learned to live in the margins, too.
My classmates’ experiences learning alongside a peer with a disability shouldn’t be extraordinary. South Carolina’s special education students and their families shouldn’t have to seek out schools willing to provide students who are differently-abled their fundamental right to a free and equitable education. Rather the unique abilities of all of South Carolina’s students should be welcomed and supported by their schools. Right now there are 64,400 school-aged people in South Carolina living with a disability, according to Cornell University’s 2017 South Carolina’s Disability Status Report. If each of those 64,400 students were given the opportunity to impact their classmates as my brother did his, our communities would benefit from an inclusive educational system and our state would be filled with people who’ve learned to see the world inside-out.
South Carolina's Disability Status Report Cornell University , 2017.