My students envisioned these services and more this past week when I challenged them to create an ideal integrated community, where the physically and developmentally challenged would feel as equally valued as their fully-abled neighbors and peers. With no caps on spending, my students drew town layouts that we could all enjoy, complete with parks, fountains, all-service medical centers, and clusters of integrated housing connected by covered and tree-lined walkways.
One group of girls took to heart the research done by autism rock-star Temple Grandin and laid out their town in concentric circles, with a park in the middle, and walkways and streets radiating out and around the center, affording a safe and calming effect on their citizens with autism – and just about anyone else, too.
A benefit of teaching at the same school for many years is having a hand in course design. Our Contemporary Literature course – a semester elective for seniors – allowed me this indulgence several years ago. My son was just entering high school himself, and I felt an urgent need for my students (and the whole world) to become educated about autism. With more and more people being diagnosed every year, I knew that if the trajectory continued, by the time my students and my son were adults, our communities would be facing a surmounting challenge of finding housing, jobs, transportation, socialization opportunities, and other support services for those on the spectrum.
That’s when I read Mark Haddon’s brilliant novel, The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I knew immediately that I’d found the perfect vehicle for disability education. Students love this book and its fascinating protagonist, Christopher Boone, the young Englishman whose life falls apart around him, forcing him out of his rigid routines and small comfort zones. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite units to teach.
Now my students are further helped to understand autism by watching the excellent HBO biopic with Claire Danes, Temple Grandin. What a blessing this extraordinary woman has been for all people with autism, as her ability to articulate how she sees and feels the world has created a window into the minds of so many others on the spectrum who are not able to speak for themselves.
Increasingly, I have students who have their own stories to share – about siblings, cousins, neighbors, or children in summer camps where they have worked. And they don’t seem to mind too much when I tell them stories about Ramon, either. By this point in the year, we’ve established enough trust with each other to open up and get a little personal. It’s always nice when that happens.
This year I added something new: a small forum of speakers to further educate the students about what life is like for the developmentally disabled in our own community. I got them excused from a double period and moved the class to a larger room, where they were treated to presentations by a woman from Clearbrook Center, a large service provider in our area, plus a man from our regional Transition Services provider, and two of my own colleagues – a Special Ed. teacher and a Speech Pathologist. We all learned about how the SpEd community exists like a parallel universe next to our own, separate and not nearly equal. We then ate pizza and started to talk about how our communities might one day be different – more accommodating for those who can’t function independently.
Now, the students are working on envisioning a new kind of utopia – one where young and old of all abilities and limitations are valued and accommodated with parity. They’re working at tables in groups, with large pieces of paper and colored markers, designing towns of the future.
Imagining these communities is only the first step in making them a reality one day, we can hope. Today’s young people have impressed me with their kindness and non-judgmental natures. Maybe they will go off into their lives as citizens, workers, and homeowners, and collectively assert the will to change how we all live together. May my class be one pebble dropped into the pond, moving us all in the right direction.
(These aren’t my students making this cool word collage — though I wish they were! I grabbed this photo from Google…. They appear to be ‘Bama co-eds.)