Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome

In Citizenship in School:  Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome, Christopher Klewier argues that mainstreaming children with Down syndrome is a win-win situation, benefiting both typical and special education students.   I could not agree more.  

Klewier points out that children by nature want to contribute to society, and exclusion policies that segregate "special needs" students do not take into account individual circumstances and needs.  Klewier supports his view with a variety of case studies and research, including that of Soviet psychologist Lev Semonvich Vygotsky.  He writes, " Vygotsy found that the culture of segregation surrounding people with disabilities actually teaches underdevelopment of thinking through the isolation of children from socially valued opportunities."  Time and time again, when children with Down syndrome are mainstreamed into regular classes, their academic and social performances are enhanced.  To illustrate this point, Klewier uses the case study of Christine Durovich, a young woman with Down syndrome who had been segregated from mainstream schooling until she was fourteen years old.  Even Christine's IEP suggested that she "acted out" and lacked communication, adaptive, and cognitive skills.  "In the general curriculum of the regular high school, however, these images of defect were dramatically transformed (Harris, 1994)."  After enrolling in a journalism class in her sophomore year, Christine herself wrote in an article for the school paper in which she poignantly stated, "I have down syndrome, but I am not handicapped."

Klewier argues that there is often a well-intended "presumption" among policy makers that all students with Down syndrome have the same needs.  "School citizenship requires that students not be categorized and separated based on presumed defect."  He points to the fact that three students with Down syndrome who happen to be in the same room together are NOT all alike, just as "mainstreamed" students are not all alike.  Furthermore, the banishment of people with special needs from classrooms deprives "typical" students the benefits of interacting with people with disabilities.  As Klewier aptly writes, "To eliminate a single person through any form of banishment, no matter how benevolent the logic, reduces the web and makes the community a less democratic and less rich place."

My two sons were fortunate to attend an integrated preschool program in our town called the Early Learning Center.   Both Kevin and Sean were "typical" students in classrooms with fifty-percent ratios of typical-to-special-needs students.   The ELC promotes a sense of respect among all able-bodied and disabled students, and the relationships my kids formed with their friends were mutually beneficial.  Kevin and Sean learned a deep sense of compassion and understanding at the young ages of three and four that some of their fourth and fifth grade peers lack.  They also benefited tremendously from the experience of being exposed to students with Aspergers syndrome, Autism, and Down syndrome who occasionally had loud outbursts or anxious behavior.   As a room mother, I too learned some skills in dealing with students who had a myriad of needs from sensory disorders to behavioral issues.   That experience has helped my in my second round of teaching; it provided me with a  sense of understanding that can only be acquired through exposure.  I am 100 percent in agreement that students with Down syndrome should mainstreamed into regular classrooms if they so choose. 


  1. Amy, it's great that your children had the experience of being in an inclusion classroom. The best way to eliminate prejudice or fear of anyone "different" is through direct experience. We don't fear what we "don't know," but rather, "what we think we know" to be true (can't remember if that was Delpit...). It is very important for kids to learn about the experiences and realities of people other than themselves. I do think that inclusion needs to be managed appropriately though, with the right teachers and the right plans in place. It's not something that can easily be done well. Also, I think that students who are non-special education students shouldn't always be asked to be "helpers" or "assistants" day in and day out (which I've seen happen). There are times when homogenous grouping is appropriate within the classroom.

  2. I agree with Brittany, Amy...your childrens' early exposure to kids with varying learning needs gave them the opportunity to interact with the whole of humanity and in doing so saw the normality of diversity. I enjoyed reading of your experience and of Brittany's of working with inclusion students and look forward to our classroom discussion as you two will be invaluable teachers on this topic.

  3. So interesting, both of you, because after reading your blogs, I am beginning to wonder how this will really look in the secondary education setting. It is truly unbelievable at the preschool level (unbelievably good!), but logistically, I am thinking about how we could do it in our subject matters with all of the needs we are already accommodating. Thank you both so much for your eye-opening posts. I had written my original blog before reading either of yours, and it is such a cumbersome topic that I think I may have oversimplified.

  4. Amy I also agree, I think that your two sons will benefit from their early experience with inclusion. I think that Polly is right when she talks about the normalcy of diversity. Staring children young to interact in an inclusion setting is an important way to build community.