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Including children with disabilities at school: good for kids, or good for budgets?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

"That's not to say that those children don't have their own special needs and circumstances, but it was not good for her at all," Sean Adelman said.

In Seattle, where the family later settled, Sean Adelman "had to raise a huge ruckus" to get what he thought was best for his daughter: the chance to attend school classes with the kids in her neighborhood instead of being segregated all day in special education classrooms. He doesn't regret advocating for his daughter's legal rights, and believes Dev's classmates learn as much from her as he has.

"People think of inclusion as a one-way street," he said. "The reality is, everybody gains. The honest truth is that I'm a better person for having had Devon in my life. That makes me appreciate things I never understood. She fights for things I never had to fight for, and no matter how bad a day she's had, she always has a smile."

In elementary school, Devon was sometimes taunted because the effects of Down syndrome made her speech patterns hard to understand. She endured the familiar ritual of being chosen last for sports teams, and of hearing kids talk rudely about not wanting her on their team. More recently, the hurts have been about being left out, such as when her basketball teammates planned a sleepover and didn't invite her. Happily, kinder friends asked her to spend the evening with them.

"That's why inclusion is so important," Adelman said. "We all grow and learn from each other. The challenge is to make sure inclusion is not just about a token special kid, but that kids are co-educated."

Among children with serious developmental disorders, Devon's learning potential is quite high. It took her a long time to learn skills like riding a bicycle, and even skiing, but she persisted and won out. The same determination helped her learn to read. Like many children with Down syndrome, she is friendly and sociable. Her growing mental capacity has allowed her to understand that she is different, though.

"To this day, people see her and perceive there are problems," her dad said. "She's old enough that she knows that. It's hard to watch your kid go through that."

When Devon attends regular classes, it is usually with an aide by her side. She takes some of her classes in a separate special education classroom at her school. Her parents have seen benefits, and made peace with that. They've worked willingly with teachers to ensure Devon gets as much as she can from her school experience.

"She's so cute she could get away with murder," Sean Adelman said. "Unless we are really checking on what she's doing, she's not always being challenged. We check to see that she does have homework, and that she's doing it."

Maura's story

For parents of children with profound disabilities, the inclusion debate looks quite different. Salt Lake City mother Jenifer Lloyd's opinions about what's best for her daughter, Maura, have changed over the years. Shortly after her birth, Maura had a devastating stroke that left her with significant brain damage. Now 17, Maura can't talk, can't walk unaided, and her vision and hearing are severely impaired. Still, she is a "very social, and generally a pretty happy child," her mother said.

When Maura was young, her mother favored inclusion. As she grew older, though, it became obvious that Maura had less and less in common with her schoolmates — and that she needed specialized services that regular schools couldn't provide. Lloyd is grateful that inclusion at a regular school wasn't her daughter's only choice.

Maura attended preschool in a regular classroom, and she loved it. "A couple of little girls really made an effort to befriend her," Lloyd said. "They learned that she wasn't scary. She might make a strange noise, or do something different from time to time, but they realized there was nothing to be afraid of, even at that young age."

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