I'm a disability rights journalist, professor of history, and father of a nine-year-old boy with Down syndrome.
He's a highly social but relatively non-speaking boy, and we’ve ended up – as he starts his fourth year of school – with about 60 per cent inclusion and 40 per cent work in a special education resource room and in various on-site therapies.
As the new school year gets underway, I've been reflecting on what’s gone well and what’s gone badly. In the end, it has less to do with intentions, ability or philosophy of education. Instead, it's all about communication – both within the school and between the school and home.
Things are good now, but his second year at school went badly. Paperwork just showed up in our son’s folder, detailing assignments that had not been adapted for him. We felt that we had to constantly ask for more information that should have been provided already.
It didn’t seem to register with the teacher that our son couldn’t verbally explain assignments on his own. At the end of the year, we got a letter inviting everyone to come and see their child perform little mini plays from books they had been reading – every child, that is, except ours. I got really angry and wrote about it. In the aftermath, two things changed that cost no dollars, and allowed our son a wonderful third year in school.
First, the principal began holding regular meetings between special ed staff and other teachers. While people consulted all the time before, regular meetings were spent inside divisions; special ed talked to special ed, second grade teachers talked to second grade teachers. Now, they meet across these lines.
Second, our son’s new one-to-one aide figured out that more communication at the end of the day pre-solves a lot of problems.
Our son communicates wonderfully in many different ways, but he’s not yet able to answer the basic post-school questions: "How was your day? What homework do you need to do? What’s happening in school tomorrow?"
His aide sends home a note every single day with that information, and thus we feel more connected. When problems emerge, we tackle them as a team, not as opponents.
It's not just about formal assignments, though. When we miss pyjamas day, or aren't told that he has a monkey mask for the musical and so think he's been left out – or when he has, in fact, been inadvertently left out – these things hurt. They highlight difference. And all the good intentions in the world can’t repair those wounds, but this is why communication is so important to our son’s inclusion.
Better internal and external communication doesn't really cost anything, but it has made a huge difference to both my son’s education and how we, as parents, feel about his education. To us, that's priceless.
David Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illonois. He can be found on Twitter @Lollardfish