A mother responds to Hillsborough School Board member Olson
Last week Hillsborough County School Board member Candy Olson spoke at a board workshop about the special education principle of inclusion, and the district's need to make hard choices about what schools are most suitable for students with various disabilities.
Not surprisingly, her words struck a nerve. Listen to Karen Clay, the south Tampa mother of an adult son with physical disabilities, who spoke at Tuesday night's board meeting:
"My son graduated from the Hillsborough County schools in 1999 and when I brought him to the last school board meeting, his comment to me was, 'nothing has changed, not even some of the School Board members.'
"I fought for him to remain in the classroom. I fought for him to attend his neighborhood school. I did not have to fight for him to be fully included because Principal Vince Sussman at Plant High School knew that students with disabilities have value, have worth. The district tried to put him on a special diploma track. He graduated with a 4.56 GPA. He was fortunate to have teachers and principals to believe that he mattered, unlike the district personnel who, much like Ms. Olson, believe that inclusion has never been defined.
"Inclusion is about the child's right to participate and the school's duty to accept the child. Inclusion rejects the use of special schools or classrooms to separate students with disabilities from students without disabilities. A premium is placed upon full participation by students with disabilities and upon respect for their social, civil and educational rights. Inclusion gives students with disabilities skill they use in and out of the classroom.
"Students with disabilities have rights to be in the least restrictive environment and to learn alongside their able bodied peers, much like society, the world today. Ms. Olson, your vision of the world is archaic. Your attitude toward children with special needs is outdated. An education for a child with special needs is not about a place, a building, a classroom. No, it's the same as that for every other student. It's about their neighborhood school where their brothers and sisters and friends are in attendance.
"It amazes me that after all these years you have only attended a few IEP meetings, and yet you talk about these students based solely upon the severity of their disability. I guess when you see my son laying on a flat wheelchair, breathing with the assistance of a ventilator, you only see his disability. Well, just this past weekend he spoke at one of the largest assistive technology conferences in this nation. He demonstrated how remotely controlling a robot can expand the presence of people with disabilities in the workforce, in schools and in society.
"The severity of ones disability does not determine their level of potential. The greatest barriers that persons with disabilities have to overcome are not steps or curbs. It's expectations. The low expectations for success at this school district clearly starts at the top. You simply do not care."