THINKING FOR OURSELVES
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Aug. 9-15, 2009
This past week I attended a conference on Inclusion on the College Campus for young people with developmental disabilities. More than 150 people gathered to talk about programs and possibilities for students who after they become 18 most often find their way into sheltered workshops or group living situations.
I have not always been supportive of the idea that people with intellectual disabilities should be involved on a college campus. While I supported inclusion in K-12 classrooms, like a lot of people I thought college was somehow different. This is precisely the attitude that the conference challenged.
My attitude began to change when Janice and Rich Fialka-Feldman asked me why I thought college was so different. Did I think learning stopped when a person reached 18? If I thought it important for a 14 year old to have age-appropriate experiences with peers, why did I think that stopped at 18?
Prodded by these questions, I helped people at Oakland University offer an "Options" program for students with developmental disabilities. Over the last five years, as I have come to know the students involved, I have learned how this experience transforms people. I have seen students grow toward independence, social and intellectual maturity, and become more responsible, open-minded adults. This transformation is what we want for all young people as they move toward assuming the responsibilities of adult life.
Janice Fialka-Feldman was the keynote speaker. She described her own journey as a parent and activist raising Micah, her developmentally disabled child, Janice said that we are at the "beginning of a new movement" and are "witnessing history taking place." She explained that many people thought the idea of college for students like her son was impossible, but that "Micah's dream, by doing what seemed impossible, gave us the fuel and energy to dream the possible, "
Janice also told us how she has been influenced by the young people in the disability pride movement, the post "Americans with Disabilities Act " generation, who challenge us to see disabilities as just a part of who they are and who have a strong vision of what it means to live in a diverse world.
Today 250 universities and colleges in 32 states offer programs for young people with developmental disabilities. What was once impossible is becoming normal.
The wonderfully hopeful possibilities of this movement do not come only from what it means in the lives of individuals who have the opportunity to continue to grow and develop. Inclusion is something more than just adding on one more person. Inclusion transforms both the persons included and the community in which they are included. Both are changed.
Inclusion raises the fundamental question of what is education for? All too often these days the quick answer is "So people can get better jobs and make more money." Colleges and universities across the country are trying to sell themselves as the route to individual upward mobility.
But the reason we as a society have supported public education is not so that some individuals can line their pockets. It is because we understand that there is a connection between an educated citizenry and the possibilities of democracy.
Inclusion of people with developmental disabilities raises the question of what do we mean by intelligence? Is the ability to add and subtract or do abstract problem solving the only kind of intelligence that matters? Or is there a social and emotional intelligence that we should be fostering in all people?
These questions go to the heart of why we have institutions of higher education and to what it means to advance our understanding of democracy.