The following is my response to that letter:
Saturday February 20, 2011
To the Editor:
A few days ago, William Meyer pondered the changes in education over the last 40 years, which led me to question as well, what has changed since the 1970s? Well, one thing that changed was the implementation of Public Law 94-142 in 1975, also known as the Education of ALL Handicapped Children Act. Now that law is more widely known as IDEA or the Individuals with Disabilities Act. What this changed, in the 1970s, was that states received federal funds so that they could implement policies that assure a free appropriate public education to all children with disabilities. Before this change, intellectuals with disabilities didn’t receive appropriate educational services that would enable them to be productive members of society. I’ll bet that if Mr. Meyer’s classmates in the 1960s and 1970s were to look around as they sat in that classroom with those 30-plus children, it would be safe to say that they would not have been sharing their educational space with any children with intellectual disabilities, because those children would have been segregated from the “educable” population, perhaps placed in the basement of the school or worse yet, warehoused in state institutions. When one teacher must stand in front of the room and deliver information to children of similar IQs without having to differentiate in order to meet the unique learning needs of ALL children, it is perfectly understandable that there could be 30-plus children sitting in those desks and that a teacher aide would not be necessary in that classroom; however, because of this change since the 1970s, students with intellectual disabilities can be in a room with their peers so that they may be prepared for further education, enabling them to gain more independence and become productive members of society.
With this change, came the advent of teacher aides, the “second person in the classroom”. Because of these so-called “extra” people in the classroom, my son who was born with Down Syndrome sings in the school choir. Because of these other people in the room, my son learned how to build a house in his residential structures class. Because of these other people in the room, my son will compete in Dance Marathon with other high school teens in order to raise money for kids with cancer. Because of the other person in the room, my son just finished his second wrestling season on the JV team. Because of the extra people that will be in the room this Spring, my son, along with his girlfriend who also has Down Syndrome, will attend the junior prom without a parent having to be present. Because of the extra people in the room, all students have the opportunity to get to know and to learn from someone who may not be on the same physical or intellectual playing field, perhaps opening the door to a society that, embraces these differences with sensitivity and grace. That is what has changed. I think that my son and many other young people like him would agree that it has been a good change.