This past year, I worked as an educational assistant at my local high school. I was paired with a handful of different kids with various special needs, and my job was as extensive as it was rewarding. I joined my students for every class, spent one-on-one time tutoring them, and enthusiastically became their cheerleader whenever these teens strengthened old skills and mastered new ones.
Of all the unforgettable moments I had with the kids, my all-time favorite experience was getting to join an entire class of students with special needs on a field trip to a nearby store. The teacher had created a fun scavenger hunt for the teens, and I had a blast pointing them in the right direction as they found books, toys, and electronics that were on their list of clues. I also loved when I was able to assist one particular student as she used the change in her wallet to purchase some candy she had picked out herself. I will always remember the wonder on her face and the smile that poured out of her as she participated in the activity.
I will also never forget the humbling moments of taking an autistic student to his weekly outdoor gym class. The kids were studying tennis, so we all hiked a good 15 minutes to the school’s sports field. While he spent the vast majority of his time in a classroom with other autistic kids, his desire to socialize with the rest of his peers was palpable. During every gym class, I’d follow this shy and curious teen around the perimeter of the tennis court as the PE teacher mainly focused on instructing the neurotypical students.
Most days went like this, until one morning I witnessed something so moving. Three girls who had spent their middle school years with my student begged him to play the game with them. I watched in awe as they slowly and carefully hit the ball back and forth, cheering him on the whole time. He and his supportive classmates were filled to the brim with nervous excitement as they bonded, and feeling the joy all around totally melted my mama bear heart.
I wish this wasn’t an isolated incident, and that kids with special needs were always offered the same support, access, presumed competence and understanding that every other child receives. But sometimes that just isn’t the case, especially when schools are faced with the prospect of off campus field trips. Legislation is currently in place to help ensure the advocacy and protection of every student’s right to participate in these trips, yet kids with disabilities are sometimes told that they cannot attend or that their attendance is only allowable if a parent joins them.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) all require educational institutions to provide resources to students with physical or mental disabilities, so they can enjoy the same programs and services as the rest of the school. These accommodations might include pairing a child in need with a one-on-one paraprofessional or securing a sign language interpreter. While this legislation is a game-changing advance for children with special needs, it is not always enacted appropriately during school field trips.
According to New York-based lawyer Bruce Goldstein, lack of proper planning is the main reason why children with disabilities miss out on field trips. Goldstein has worked with many families who have faced opposition from their schools, and all too often these parents are forced to step in when teachers and officials don’t provide the necessary accommodations.
“Some parents feel boxed into the corner, and they end up going, just to allow their child to participate,” Goldstein explains in an article for Sierra Club. “For the school or school district, it is not a reasonable accommodation to require the parent to go along. It’s something that the district has to take on as its responsibility.”
Pressuring a parent to chaperone their child not only goes against the legislation that was carefully created for families of kids with special needs, it also ensures an unequal dynamic on field trips that require no additional parents to participate. When children with disabilities miss out on these trips, they also miss out on the tangible lessons taught that day and any additional ones that may relate to it. Mother Shelly King explained to Sierra Club just how detrimental it has been when her daughter is discouraged from attending her classroom’s field trips. “Well, when she comes back, she is not really included in the lesson plan, because what they learn on the field trip, they work into their lesson plans at school,” she says. Not to mention how ostracized they feel from their peers and classroom community from missing out on said experience.
Goldstein encourages parents to do their research on the legislation in place, so that they aren’t made to accommodate a school that should honestly be accommodating them. “If parents are aware of what their children’s rights and their rights are, and the school district’s obligation toward those children, these are issues that ought to be addressed and discussed at the planning meetings that are required to be held under law [as part of the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 planning meeting],” he shares.
Goldstein also wants to challenge any concerns that schools have with how much these extra accommodations may cost them. Not only is the law in the students’ favor, but it was designed with the school budget in mind. “Whatever the [school district’s] cost is going to be for this particular student, it’s going to pale in comparison to the annual budget, so it would be hard to argue it’s too costly,” he explains.
This year, a California Community Advisory Committee is considering a proposal that would help ensure that their school’s funding makes the necessary room for a paraeducator to join a child with special needs on a field trip. Hopefully, more places will follow in this committee’s footsteps, so that children in need can avoid the exclusion that often leads to feelings of isolation and shame for an impressionable, young student.
“They’re already aware of being different, and as much as we can do for inclusion and normalization — in terms of developing whole individuals and allowing them to grow into adults and feel like an integral part of society — we have a responsibility to support and encourage,” Goldstein says. “The message that’s sent by exclusion is one of those things that can have just horrible, lasting effects.”
It is past time that school districts step up and follow the laws that have been put in place to honor every single student, rather than a select majority. Despite having been in the educational system for only a short time, I was still able to witness firsthand the debilitating impact that limited funding and lack of preparation can have on the students who need our support the most. I was also able to enjoy the tremendous benefit of seeing my kids feel included and important on the days when it was easy to do so. Now more than ever, we need to offer our students the same opportunities for inclusion, even when it may not be the most convenient option for schools.
Every single child deserves to feel the satisfaction and belonging that my students experienced when I joined them for their field trips and helped them bond with classmates at school. When we can figure out the best way to include everyone with compassion, respect, and understanding, every student undoubtedly benefits. At the very least, making these accommodations can show children with disabilities that we see them, we stand by them, and we believe in them. And that just might be one of the most important lessons we could ever teach our kids.
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