Aaron’s prerequisite skills for school were in place one year after we started his ABA programme, and it was time to find him a suitable school placement. I wasn’t going to consider special needs schools as he had caught up his delays. I strongly suspected that his inclusion in a mainstream school, instead of approaching special needs schools, was going to be a challenge to secure. After all, I’d had past experience of approaching schools when I was searching for David’s school placement. As fate had it, I found myself once again in the position where I had to fight for educational rights. There were many special needs schools but I wanted to secure Aaron’s attendance at a mainstream school. Why should he not be considered for mainstream, I thought – I shouldn’t have to just consider special needs schools. I looked over the special needs schools list, but I was convinced that it would be better to send him to mainstream. As much as the special needs schools tried to cater to the needs of children with special needs, I was sure that Aaron would do best in a mainstream. I’d visited many special needs schools previously when I was looking for a school placement for my older son David, and after many years and much searching, I knew what I was looking for.
The lawyer in me took over and I found myself buried in legislation on inclusive education. I wanted to make sure I knew my legal rights and briefed counsel to give me an opinion on the law. The conclusion was that inclusive education was a right and not a privilege in South Africa. According to the Constitution of South Africa, the South African Schools Act of 1996 and White Paper 6, Special Needs Education: Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, Aaron had the right to be enrolled in a mainstream school and this meant that I didn’t just have to consider special needs schools.
As much as inclusion was a legal right, however, it wasn’t widely practised in schools around South Africa and much work was still needed to entrench the law. It seemed that most special needs children were only being enrolled in special needs schools in South Africa.
The benefits of difference
Inclusive education values the unique contribution each student can make to the class. The opportunity for students with a difference to learn alongside their typically developing peers in general-education classrooms has become more urgent than ever before, especially considering the increase in the incidence of the autism diagnosis. Parents should be given the choice. The right to choose either inclusive education in mainstream or the consideration of special needs schools that cater for the needs of their individual child. But they should at least have an opportunity to choose the best course of action for their child.
I had all my arguments in support of Aaron being included in a mainstream nursery school prepared. This option would be instead of any of the special needs schools I researched. I carefully planned and went over these reasons a few times. Without a real understanding of human differences, how could children become complete adults capable of contributing to a healthy, fair, non-judgemental society? A society that, at its core, has a strong sense of good morals and values, has to encourage exposure to children with a difference. Religious schools especially, which claim to teach children good morals and values, have to be true to their mission statements. This was my view when I was considering mainstream versus the many special needs schools I considered as a school placement.
Our South African education system tends to box children in different ‘classes’ with specific labels, such as ‘remedial’, ‘special needs’ or ‘school-ready’. A future where segregation along such lines is no longer a common practice was, surely, something to be encouraged and welcomed. As mentioned above, parents should have the right to choose whether they want to send their child to mainstream and have them included or whether they prefer to send their child to one of the special needs schools available.
The time had come for me to take a stand. I was prepared to do everything necessary to change the old-school norms that placed children with a difference in their own boxes and sent them packing to special needs schools, without giving parents a choice. Reform had to be possible. Aaron deserved the opportunity to bridge his challenges. He would continue with his one-on-one programme, but also needed a mainstream school setting and not only special needs schools, where he could learn to model his peers. If the class teacher was open to it and willing to give him the support he needed, there would be no limits to what he could achieve. I was adamant that we needed to have a shift in thinking from only sending children with learning challenges to special needs schools. This would entail abandoning the approach that simply identified learners who couldn’t keep up with the class and shipped them off to various therapists, or to a remedial or special needs school; and embracing a new mindset of ‘Look at how I, the teacher of a mainstream class, am going to address the individual needs of each learner with a difference.’ Aaron’s presence in the classroom would pave the way for many other children needing a foot up in future. In would pave the way for parents to have a choice and to be able to consider inclusive mainstream schooling or special needs schools.
An anticipated rejection over not choosing special needs schools
It was 2014 and time to secure a place for Aaron at nursery school. But there was a big hurdle to overcome first: meeting the principal of the nursery school we’d chosen. As I walked into her office for the appointment I’d made with her, I felt uneasy. I was going to ask her if Aaron could be included in their school accompanied by a facilitator, and I was fully anticipating her refusal. I was worried she would tell me to only consider special needs schools instead of her school as a placement for Aaron.
I took a seat, feeling anxious because there was so much at stake. Even though I’d come prepared, in that moment I got stage fright and had no idea how I’d find the right words to secure my child’s future. I’d rehearsed the reasons why Aaron should be allowed to attend the school and why he shouldn’t just be disregarded and sent off to special needs schools. Once I sat in front of her, however, I forgot my carefully rehearsed lines and began to be overwhelmed by fear of rejection. What if she said no? What if she said you HAVE to look at special needs schools and we can’t accommodate Aaron? In that moment, I couldn’t even remember the legislation I’d so carefully researched.
Thankfully, she was open to the idea of inclusion. When she said yes, I almost leapt out of my chair from excitement. I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to her for supporting the idea and not just cutting me off and shipping me off to special needs schools. It was very important for Aaron’s development and programme that we find a suitable school environment that would make it possible for him to learn the skills he was lacking and I wanted that placement to be a mainstream setting.
Blending in well in mainstream
The school team worked closely with us and every week we briefed the teacher on Aaron’s goals. Working in a team was important to reach Aaron’s long-term goal, which was to be successful in a mainstream school, without any additional support. I desperately wanted my decision to send him to mainstream to be successful. I knew it could work and that I didn’t have to just consider special needs schools. Communication was the thread that held it all together and ensured Aaron’s success. The teacher was responsible for a class of 20 kids, with 19 children to manage apart from Aaron. We had to make Aaron’s integration process as seamless as possible, ensuring that our presence in the classroom did not make her feel uncomfortable and without imposing in any way. Our facilitator would have to win her over to convince her that Aaron didn’t have to only go to special needs schools.
Special Needs Schools or Inclusion in Mainstream
Teachers are not always all open to working with a facilitator, as this means there’s another person in the classroom all the time. They prefer to recommend to parents to only consider special needs schools for learners with autism. As time passed Aaron was successful and including him in mainstream school was successful. I was elated with the outcome. Aaron coped in a mainstream classroom and was also socially accepted. I didn’t need to send him to the special needs schools I’d read about and could integrate him in the mainstream classroom.