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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Presume Competence

Yesterday’s IEP meeting got me thinking.  How many of us have to prove our competence when it comes to associating with peers?  For most of us, presumed competence is a normal part of life when it comes to daily activities, school, basic work, etc.  When you first started school it was presumed you could handle a regular Kindergarten class.  If you’ve enrolled your own kids in school or sports or extra curricular activities, your kids were presumed to be competent until they may have proved otherwise.

How would life be if it were the other way around?  We are finding that out first hand.

I went into this IEP meeting hopeful but expecting to argue our point for why Cainan should receive his education in a general education class with his peers.  I knew there would be some concerns regarding this step because he has always been in an isolated environment, away from peers in school, receiving a very individualized education in a special setting.  But I also know my son and I know he’s ready for this step.  I thought I could explain that to the school officials and we could come to an agreement.  I was wrong.

I left the meeting with a somewhat positive feeling because I believed we had made some progress toward our goal, but the more I dissected the two-hour discussion of Cainan’s current abilities and goals for next year, my opinion changed.  I began to feel very discouraged and overwhelmed with the amount of work they are requiring of Cainan and my family in order to prove that Cainan is competent to have an education with his peers in the least restrictive environment possible.  They are presuming Cainan is incompetent without any proof on which to base this assumption.

I pointed out that Cainan has successfully (extremely successfully) participated with peers in Awana and Sunday School.  He independently attended four weeks of various Vacation Bible School programs at different churches in our area last summer.  I have seen his interactions with peers and I have seen him be successful.  Did it require some education on his condition and some supports in order for him to smoothly navigate this peer world?  Yes.  But it was completely doable and he enjoys his interactions with peers at church.  In fact, it is his choice and desire to be in a regular education class next year instead of a blended 3rd through 6th grade segregated special education class.  Is that going to happen?  It remains to be seen.

What was decided at yesterday’s meeting is that Cainan will start being pulled out of his special class to attend special instruction with other general ed kids in a “Resource Room”—this is for kids who are not in a segregated class but require some additional instruction because they are falling behind in certain areas.  In addition, they will attempt to place Cainan in a regular second grade classroom for some minimal instruction if they have the resources to do so.  At the end of the year, they will see how Cainan did with these tasks and make a more informed decision about whether or not he’s ready to be in a general education class.

Did any of you have to go to school part time as resources allowed in order to determine if you would be successful in a classroom setting?  No.  I’m sure you were presumed competent.  Cainan is presumed incompetent.

I am also to get as much time as I can observing in general ed second and third grade classes so I will have a better understanding of what they’re talking about when they say that it will be difficult for Cainan to adjust to these new settings.  While I could tell they didn’t believe me when I pointed out Cainan’s success with peers, I’m sure they could tell I didn’t believe them when they told me how “hard” general ed is going to be on him.  I had already planned on observing for the opposite reason.  I wanted to know how the classes operated so I could help brainstorm supports that would make Cainan successful.  I am presuming he is competent to be in this setting with the right tools to help him.  They are presuming he is not.

What is the solution?  More advocacy.  More research.  Talking to parents who have successfully had their kids in regular education classrooms whether or not they’re meeting the academic standard and finding out how they did it.  There are schools and districts all over this country that are successfully adopting a policy of full inclusion for kids with disabilities.  Does this mean there’s no special education for them?  No, definitely not.  Kids who need special education receive it in the general education setting through supports, modifications, adjustments to curriculum and grading, etc.  

Cainan has to live in the real world.  Someday he has to learn how to get along with “typically-abled” people.  If he’s been isolated from them his entire education in order to support his “academic needs”, how is that going to 
help him when he gets
 out into the real world after high school?  If, on the other hand, he has grown up with his typically-abled peers and they know him, really know him and he has learned how to interact with them since he’s been included with them, then he’s going to have the tools he needs to make it in society wherever he ends up academically.  

Furthermore, these kids who get to know Cainan and see how successful he is even though he is different from them will start do something their elders have not.  When they meet someone with differences, they will start to presume competence.  They will start to recognize that a person who’s mind works differently, who has difficulty with things they take for granted, who looks differently or uses assistive devices for basic tasks, is a person like them—a classmate, a peer, a competent individual.  

It takes time to readjust your thinking.  If you’ve never been exposed to a person with a disability, if you’ve never had a relationship with someone who has a disability, if you’ve never seen their struggle and taken the time to know their story or thoughts, you may naturally assume they are incompetent of many of the things they hope and dream to do.  What a disservice to them!  Why must they prove their competence in order to even try?  

Presume competence.  Presume ability.  Give each person a chance to try for what they desire in this life—the things most of us take for granted.  An education with peers.  Independence.  A job.  A Career.  A family.  Did you have to prove you could do any of those things before you got the chance to try for them?  

Presume competence.

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