The education of individuals with complex living and learning needs, has, since its beginning, existed under the premise that this education is “different” from a typical education. Everything from “How is it different?” to “To what extent should it be different?” to “How do we prioritize and implement these differences?” has been discussed and debated ever since.
One of these differences, as I have observed it as an educator, is the need for an extensive emphasis on “readiness.” Just as it sounds, readiness is the state of preparation for participating in school culture and then work and societal culture later in life. What one is preparing for slowly morphs over the course of one’s career from skills for school success to skills for work and success in life after school (see above).
The first focus of readiness in public education is on school readiness, a pursuit that many of our students with the most severe and profound learning needs struggle to accomplish their entire academic careers. You might remember struggling with this yourself: everything from strict compliance to learning standards to independence. And that’s the easy part! How many of us struggled with the emotional and social sides of school long into our careers. And many of us needed very little additional support to conform to these standards. Imagine the struggle of students with significant and complex needs!
Then comes the shift to work and life-after-school readiness. Whether one is preparing for college, the workforce, a supported work environment or (as in many cases with our students with the most significant needs) simply existing in the community, school inevitably becomes all about preparing for what is next. After all, what are we doing in school if not being schooled in something? But this is a complicated prospect for many of our students with complex needs. What if what you are able to give the world is not something that our society values enough to compensate you for your efforts? What if you can’t, or don’t want to conform?
This may lead you to think, as it did for me, “Is there a way for our students with significant and complex needs to avoid this altogether?”, as in “Why should those with significant human variance always be asked to conform?”. Now, I think that we have hit upon one of the seminal current issues of this field. At what point should we expect society to change its expectations and norms, and at what point should those with significant human variance change their skills and norms to meet society’s expectations? How do we, as the educators of these students, teach to these issues?
We are now speaking of avoiding a large portion of what school is designed to be for citizens of the U.S.: a way to prepare youth for integration into the currently accepted societal norms. We have seen our society expand its acceptance horizons time and time again, so there is hope that society might begin to accept individuals with human variance far outside of the norm in such a way that those individuals can enjoy a life largely unimpeded by societal constraints. We can dream.
But, this is way more than a dream. Thanks to the Disability Studies movement and the work of countless individuals with complex needs paving the way, many are beginning to integrate successfully into society without the need of such significant conformity.
So maybe what we are striving to teach, what might bridge this gap, is a new kind of readiness, one that helps individuals to prepare for conforming to expectations in some cases, and for advocating for diversity in others. What would this look like in the classroom? It is here that I would turn to disability identity and the need for the individualization of, not just specific academic goals, but larger goals which define, for each individual, what education they require to meet their needs for integration.
But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.