“Mainstream” schooling and disablism

01May09

This post is my* contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009.

I’m getting good at tuning out background noise in the Board of Education office, a task made easier by the fact that all the conversation is in Japanese and I’m not fluent enough to follow it all anyway. But occasionally words and phrases come up so often in overheard conversations that they seep through. And so earlier this month I found myself wondering why my supervisor seemed to be spending all his time talking on the phone about special dogs.

It wasn’t until I’d heard the phrase several dozen times that I realised my brain was interpreting it wrong. I was hearing the Japanese word tokubetsu, meaning special, and the French word chien, meaning dog. Only my supervisor doesn’t have any reason, or in fact the ability, to be speaking French (though he claims his German isn’t bad). What he was actually saying was 特別支援, tokubetsu shien. Special support.

I don’t know if it’s common practice in Japan, or just a function of my rural area, but there is only one school for children with special educational needs anywhere nearby, and it’s a high school. All children younger than fifteen seem to be in mainstream schools – and that includes the children with disabilities. Often they have their own classroom and classroom, but even the smallest schools will make arrangements for a special class if one of its pupils requires it. If special support is required, it is provided.

This system provides me with an interesting perspective. As a peripatetic English teacher, I’m often left out of the loop when it comes to detailed information about the classes I teach. I’ve learned where to track down information about how many pupils are in each class, and the names of the teachers. I can find out if there is a special class, or a pupil with an assisting teacher. But until I arrive at a school or teach a particular class for the first time, I don’t know any more than that there is a kid with special support.

Though there are special classes, these kids are put with the rest of their age group for some lessons. From what I can see, this is a flexible system. For example, one kid with learning difficulties learns how to write one-on-one with his support teacher, learns maths with the rest of his grade and a little extra help from his teacher, and joins in with sports and art with no assistance whatsoever. It seems to work really well for the kids that need special support, at least as far as I can see from the outside.

One of the lessons that all the kids join in with is English. I’ll be told, for example, that there is one extra pupil

And the interesting thing? Often I can’t tell which kid it is.

I’m not saying this because I’m trying to show how progressive I am. I’m not trying to be all “look at me, I can see past disabilities”. I don’t want a cookie.

It’s just that in the absence of obvious clues like a severe physical disability, or a support teacher clearly giving one kid his or her full attention, I just can’t tell.

And the reason for this, I think, is the other children. They know each other, and they’ve known each other for years. They know that Naoko** has learning difficulties, and that Kazuma has very poor eyesight, and that Hiroki has only one arm, and that Kanako uses a wheelchair, just the way they know that Yuna hates rice, or that Hayato isn’t great at dodgeball.

They know, and they work around it. They don’t make Naoko stick to all the rules in the game, and they tell Kazuma what’s on the flashcard in Japanese so he can say the English word, and they throw the ball to Hiroki’s arm so he can catch it easier, and they make sure they set up the card ame where Kanako can reach, and they let Yuna have extra helpings of spaghetti, and don’t always aim for Hayato with the ball.

And they don’t even think about it. That’s just how the kids are.

I went to “mainstream” schools for my entire academic education. At my junior school, all the children were able-bodied, and aside from a few mild cases of dyslexia, without learning difficulties.

In year 6, my class went on a week-long field trip to a residential outdoor activity centre. We weren’t the only school booked in for that week. A short while before the trip, one of the teachers at my school found out that the other school that was going to be there had a surprisingly high teacher-pupil ratio. She rang up the school, and discovered that they were indeed a “special school” – for pupils with special needs.

So we knew in advance, and should have been able to get over ourselves. But we were still fifty awkward eleven-year-old girls who had no idea how to behave around a group of kids our own age, from our area, just because they had various disabilities.

And we were all ashamed of ourselves – we knew enough to know that avoiding the other kids because they were different was bad. But we didn’t know how to treat them as kids like ourselves. And I never learnt. I had able-bodied privilege. I didn’t need to.

The kids I teach wouldn’t have that problem, I think. They know that kids with disabilities are still kids. That, for example, Kanako likes to draw and likes Disney characters and won’t eat pickles and uses a wheelchair and is really good at kanji but doesn’t much like music.

I’m not trying to say that all kids with disabilities should be put into mainstream education for the edification of the other children. Obviously some children will benefit most from “special” schools. But some will benefit more from being integrated as much as possible into “mainstream” schools. The needs of the kids with special needs should be prioritised, of course. But I think all kids would benefit from this integration.

If every “mainstream” school was integrated, most children would grow up knowing someone with a disability. They would grow up knowing that kids with disabilities are still kids, and thus that adults with disabilities are still adults. If the general public knew more about disability, then they might be less inclined to discriminate.

Sure, I didn’t grow up thinking people with disabilities were bad. The only time I remember addressing disability issues was when our teacher read See Ya, Simon*** to us in class. One book does not automatically lead to equality. Disability just wasn’t talked about.

But I grew up thinking people with disabilities were different. Why else would they go to different schools? By the time I had worked out that this was a terrible way to think, it was too late. I had internalised these feelings. It’s much harder to break them now.

I wish I’d grown up knowing that kids with disabilities are just kids. I wouldn’t find it so awkward now that I teach kids on the whole ability spectrum. I hate that I find it awkward. I know that it makes me less of a person. I wish I’d figured out that kids with disabilities were just kids when I was still a kid. I’d be a better adult today.

* Disclaimer: I consider myself to be currently able-bodied, by which I mean that I do not have any physical disabilities at present. I’m new to ally work, and I’m still finding my feet here.

** Obviously I’m not using the children’s real names.

*** I had to link, reluctantly, to Amazon because I couldn’t easily find it elsewhere. Is it out of print?

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10 Responses to ““Mainstream” schooling and disablism”

  1. When my daughter Ricki (now 14 years old) was in kindergarden, she was one of the first girls with Down yndrome to be integrated in our city. The kindergarden teacher from the next-door class came over to “see”, and couldn’t tell who had the Down syndrome (from the side, where she couldn’t see faces, only behavior)….
    And her classmates accepted her well. Also in elementary school she was well accepted by her class, but eventually we had problems with younger girls starting “up” with her.

  2. 2 Laura

    I’m glad to hear your daughter benefited from integrated schooling, but sorry to hear that she was bullied later on. Out of interest (and don’t feel you have to answer this if it bothers you), how did her school react to the bullying? Were the younger girls disciplined?

  3. 3 NTE

    I grew up in a mostly progressive, mostly integrated school system, and I think it benefited me (and my then temporarily able bodied self) immensely in understanding that the kids who had disabilities were still just kids. Later, when I got sick and found myself disabled, and began teaching, I know it was to the benefit of my students that I was open and honest about my health (to the best of their understanding). They really accepted it as just another part of me: One teacher had black hair, another teacher always wore shiny shoes, and I used a wheelchair. No big deal, all around.

  4. 4 Ruchama

    I have some physical disabilities, which aren’t always visible, but always put some limitations on what I can do. When I was in school, I always liked games that kids organized better than ones that adults supervised, because adult-supervised games would always mean that everyone had to follow exactly the same rules, for “fairness.” When I played games with just other kids, we’d pretty naturally put in whatever rules would actually make it fair — playing an unbalanced game just isn’t any fun. So I could get a head start in running things or get to walk instead, and the girl who had persistent tendonitis in one wrist would always be on the end of the line and only have to use the other writs for Red Rover, and so on.

    Rickismom, my best friend’s youngest sister had Down Syndrome. Whenever there were a bunch of us playing, and it was a mixed-age group of kids, not just older kids, it was pretty much taken as a given that she’d be included in whatever way she could. She couldn’t always do everything that we could, or everything that the other kids her age could, but we all just knew that it wasn’t right to leave her out. I remember once, when she was about three or so, which would make my friends and I about 11, we were playing tag (with a whole bunch of neighborhood kids, probably ranging from about 4 to 12.) She couldn’t walk too well yet, so couldn’t play, so we decided to make her a base — anyone sitting down and holding her hand couldn’t be tagged out. She LOVED getting all that attention from the “big kids.”

    I think they tried mainstreaming her for kindergarten and maybe first grade, but then switched her over to a special school after than.

  5. 5 samedifference1

    Thanks for this brilliant post! And for the link to the book. It’s always a pleasure to discover new books with disabled characters. There weren’t enough of them when I was a teenager, though it’s great to see that this is changing now.

  6. A very honest post. The integration you describe seems to be working. And despite your hangups about your own past attitude to disability, you have a chance to start afresh here, by learning from these great kids! Don’t feel bad for what’s in the past.

  7. This was a great post! My parents fought to get me into the same public school that my 6 silbings attended. The school board finally agreed but said I was “outta there” if I ever fell. Well, I did (occasionally) but no one ever reported it because my physical disability had nothing to do with my academic abilities.

    The kids had known me since Kindergarten so they never thought I was ‘different’. The few kids who tried to tease me had to deal with my 5 – yes FIVE – older brothers. lol!

  8. 8 Laura

    Thanks for all the positive feedback, everyone! I’ve been away for a week, but I’m hoping to do a roundup of my favourite posts from BADD soon.

    NTE, thank you for making a point I missed – integration in schools doesn’t have to be limited to students only.

  9. 9 solongo

    When I was 7-8 years old, my class was paired with a class from a nearby ‘special school’. As far as I remember, we had two main activities that we did together: one year, we spent a week with them at our school doing arts and crafty activities culminating in a play using puppets we had made and songs we all learnt togther. The following year, having all got to know each other already, we went away on a camp for a few days. Throughout both weeks we were completely integrated, and I’m certain that the experience broke down a lot of barriers.


  1. 1 Some of my BADD favourites « Sanabitur Anima Mea

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