When the barriers aren’t just physical

Entering the playground, I heard a boy call my son’s name. We turned and saw one of his classmates running toward us.

“We’re playing soccer! Wanna be on my team?”

Illustration by Giselle Potter

By Sandra Joy Stein, The New York Times September 2, 2016

For most children this would be an unremarkable entrance to a neighborhood park, but for my 7-year-old son, whose rare neurological disease took away his ability to walk and talk just months before his third birthday, it was a relatively new occurrence.

Before enrolling in his current school, my son attended one several miles from our home. I had advocated for this placement because the building was one of the few in Manhattan where all classrooms, the gymnasium, the cafeteria and the auditorium were physically accessible to wheelchair users. I was determined to send him to that school because it was “barrier-free.”

But months after enrolling him, I realized that there were other barriers to his full participation unrelated to the physical plant. The only sustained interactions between the children in the two special education classrooms and the rest of the school occurred when older students served as “buddies” to children in special education via weekly half-hour play sessions. Besides his six classmates, only one of whom he befriended, my son had no opportunities to interact with other children his age in school.

Unfortunately, the same was true in our neighborhood. Since he had spent much of his early life in a hospital bed and traveled to attend school, he didn’t know many local children. They often stared or quickly looked away. I desperately wanted to end his social isolation at school and in our neighborhood.

During my son’s multiple, lengthy hospitalizations, I had observed how easily the siblings of some of his fellow patients related to him. They had grown up familiar with human differences and extended that comfort to my son. Taking my cues from these interactions, I grew determined to find a school closer to home in order to build familiarity and shared experiences with my son in our community.

Luckily, at one of our nearby schools all classes are designated for Integrated Co-Teaching: Students with and without identified special needs learn and play together. The school intends for each classroom to reflect the rich tapestry of our community.

I signed him up, but I still worried. What if he didn’t make friends? What if other parents thought that my son would divert time and resources away from their child and protested his enrollment in their child’s class?

Just weeks before the academic year started I saw two children wearing T-shirts from the new school. I introduced them to my son and told them that he would be a new first-grader that year. Their mother introduced herself and asked what class he’d be in. With mild trepidation, I answered.

“That’s great! He’ll be with my daughter!” She then turned to her children and said enthusiastically, “You’ll have lots of chances to play together at school!”

Her son’s next words came quickly. “Well, there might be some games he can’t play because he can’t walk.”

His mother replied swiftly, “No, you’ll have to figure out a way to change the game so he can play too.”

I had never heard anyone so clearly shift the assumption of exclusion to the creative challenge of inclusion. She then introduced me to her youngest son, who also has special needs. On the first day of school, her daughter ensured my son’s remarkably smooth entry to his new classroom. She is one of his many school friends we see regularly in our local park.

My son doesn’t always make eye contact. He sometimes drools. He makes sounds the other children cannot understand. His body moves in unusual ways. But with appropriate adaptations and support, he learns, plays, swims, skates, sleds, dances and rides horses. Along with the adults in his school, his classmates adapt to ensure his participation. He’s just another person with his own unique qualities and traits.

So now when my son arrives at the park, he is typically greeted with a hug and an invitation to play. His friend waited patiently while I helped my son get out of his wheelchair near the soccer goal, and helped him balance as he played goalie. I felt great pride in both my son’s effort to participate in the game and his classmates’ ease in inviting him to play. There are areas of his school that aren’t yet wheelchair accessible. But for us, it turns out that a truly barrier-free environment is as much about an inclusive attitude as it is about accessible architecture.

Sandra Joy Stein is a writer and education consultant.

nytSource The New York Times

Mobility Menu

follow us in feedly

Call 403-240-9100