Sunday, February 19, 2012

A special education

After publishing my latest text it became obvious to me that I should explain in more detail what "special schooling" was like in then communist Poland and what life my parents have spared me from. Their decisions was after all linked to the education choices, or lack of them in reality we were living in. I have no idea how this term is received in other countries, I can only speak from my own experiences and those of my family. The communist governments had a very dismissive attitude towards people with disabilities. They were never seen in public, I guess they didn't fit the image of a society where everybody was healthy and happy that the government was trying to project. It was best that they, that we, were put away in a number of special institutions. Out of sight. Besides, if people with disabilities were to roam to the streets, where would have they gone? There were stairs everywhere, oh so many stairs, nobody even thought of sidewalk ramps back then. Accessible buses didn't show up on the streets of Warsaw until the mid 1990's and even then they'd be 40 minutes apart in a city that has passengers picked up every 3-4 minutes. Nobody saw the need to include the disability population in anything, and that's the feeling you can get even today when you see how there never seems  to be a priority in Poland to solve that kind of problems. How it's always about the money that there is never enough of, how people with disabilities should be patient and grateful for every little thing that does happen.  You could see some of that attitude when I was applying to law school in Warsaw in 1998. The Dean's disability office was trying to discourage me from picking that field. Classrooms were crowded and inaccessible. They suggested I pursue more popular studies among my disabled peers like English, linguistics or history. It would be easier, they said.

A special school in Poland 25 years ago was more like a holding institution. Everybody was required to attend school, you rarely had choice in the matter because they were assigned based on geography. A special school would throw a lot of types of disabilities together, physical and mental, just to give those kids some basic skills and something to do. It wasn't designed to be challenging, because the children were not expected to accomplish anything. What would the have done, join the workforce? Have a career? In Poland people with disabilities did manual labor, like gluing dolls and putting pens together. They were not intended to go to college. How would they function if they did. Most people would just collect money from the government, having no way to be productive, to be educated, to be included. 'Till this day my employment status in Poland is "permanently unable to work" as if employment only meant hammering away all day at the factory. I'm attorney in Florida. The kids with various types of disabilities would pick up bad habits from each other and often be neglected.  That's something I saw in a number of Polish rehabilitation centers- unless the parent was there to watch things the kids would sometimes be left to themselves and not even taken to therapy. But such attitudes were common across the board- when I was six or seven and I had surgeries on my legs my mother asked the nurse to look out for my spastic right hand to make sure that it's stretched out. She bandaged my hand to the railing. I was also told to pee on myself because she didn't feel like assisting me. When my  parents decided to keep me out of the special school system they weren't making some deep ideological statements. They wanted to save me from the lifetime of institutional contempt. They wanted to make me the best I could've been,  they wanted me to be the most normal. We were pioneers, but not for the glory and not by choice.

A lot has changed in the approach to people with disabilities today. More and more things are accessible to people with various disabilities. But something has never budged. The hardest  thing to change is the mentality. It feels like things are still geared towards paying people a monthly sum or keeping them home. Or paying employers to create jobs for disabled or give them preferential treatments and tax cuts. A lot of talk about inclusion, a lot of debating, a lot of money  thrown around on special programs. Big heads uttering big words and yet, you always have to wait for the change. Americans took a different route. They said, Let's just remove the barriers so we can get rid of what prevents a lot of people from fully participating in society. Education, mass transit, culture, work, government: let's create a network of requirements. Still, parents have a number of issues negotiating with schoolboards and placing their children. But that's a tale for another day.

An to be honest, there are some negative connotations to the term special education even here in America. JKF runs a school for kids with Cerebral Palsy. People I spoke to often assume it involves children with mental retardation that are not able to mentally succeed in a regular school setting. That our paste is slower, that we don't push pupils to work hard. That it's separate from regular education or alternative in some unfamiliar way, like a Waldorf school. We've made a point in telling people that our goal is not to keep kids separate but to give them abilities to succeed in a "normal" school or any other setting. Because no parent wants their child to be different.


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