NY Times: Schools struggle to educate severely disabled

Here we go again, I thought to myself when I surveyed the front page of The New York Times this morning — front and center, a Really Big Article (three-column front-page art and almost two full pages inside) all about the costs, challenges and (implied) futility of educating students with severe disabilities in public schools. (Trivia and gratuitous personal revelation: When I worked at the paper we used to call features of this type and heft a “Big Heave.”)

The story is impotant because the Front Page of The New York Times says it is, but it’s been done many times over the years, in various guises. Yes, it costs a lot more money to educate students with severe disabilities, and it is also true that No Child Left Behind has perhaps caused schools to spend more time trying to impart academic knowledge to these students rather than the life skills (making change, riding public transportation) that some — but which ones?–might find more useful in their post-school adult lives. 

Most of the comments on the article seem to be about the “waste” of spending money educating students who would be better taught to live out their days quietly out of sight in group homes.  But here’s the part I find most troubling:

Donovan’s [a student with severe disabilities profiled in the article] love for music requires no translation. He sings in fragmented high-pitched tones, or in throaty notes that blossom into rhythmic phrases. But Mr. Adams [a former aide] got him to achieve more.

By getting Donovan into a really happy mood, by tickling him or giving him a head rub, he found he could get him to sing “Old MacDonald” with him. And though he does not speak, Donovan managed the “Old Mac” and then — his favorite part — a loud “E-I-E-I-O.”

“Singing, that’s a form of talking,” Mr. Adams said, adding that Donovan reminded him of his mother and brother, both of whom were blind. “He understands very well, quite as much as you and I do. If he could talk, and he could see, he could express himself a little bit better.”

Without knowing it, Mr. Adams’s efforts had touched on recent research in educating severely disabled children that focuses on using emotion and human connection to reach them. As higher functioning areas of their brains are underdeveloped, emotion moves them at a deeper level, lighting up the same part of their brain, the limbic system, as meaningful music, and possibly creating a bridge to greater intellectual cognition.

 . . .

Since Mr. Adams was reassigned to other students, Donovan no longer sings “Old MacDonald,” aides in his class said. He also appears to have forgotten how to indicate, with a nod, which is more: one marker tapped against his arm or two, said Sharon Naftali, his former classroom teacher who works with him in a yoga class. “It wasn’t practiced,” she said.

So in other words, a former aide managed to elicit leaps in communication and interaction from the student — learning that has now lapsed because of lack of practice, and lack of consistent expectations. To me, that’s the tragedy — not Donovan’s presence in school or the cost of maintaining that presence.  Read the article and tell me what you think.

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One response to “NY Times: Schools struggle to educate severely disabled

  1. I don’t find this article to be as gloomy as you do. My own daughter is very severly disabled and thanks to SFUSD can communicate via computer and is a shining star in her special day program. Will she earn a diploma? No. Does that bother me? No. She needs to be prepared for the life she will lead – and I don’t think that’s quietly living in a nusring facility. (She can’t talk, but there’s nothing quiet about her)

    I prefer to focus on the “one size does not fit all” quote in the article. Special ed needs changes and could be alot more efficient and beneficial if we stopped pretending the differences don’t matter. They matter greatly. And disabled students of all levels should be educated in a way that prepares them for their lives, not the lives we wished they could have had.

    Like their non disabled peers, some special ed students will go to college, many won’t. Those who have that potential should be academically prepared, those who do not should also be prepared for the lives they will lead. Many students, disabled or not, would benefit from vocationsl training but that has disappeared for the schools. Programs like these could be finded through special ed dollars and per chance available to all interested students.