Internecine warfare would be a good way to describe the debate which rages amongst the Down’s Syndrome community over Mainstream School v. Special School. At least, it feels that way some days. It is very damaging. We risk splitting Down’s Syndrome into two classes – ‘Acceptable Down’s’ and ‘Unacceptable Down’s’. Seriously.
A friend and I were accused on a public forum, of wanting to hide all children with Down’s Syndrome away, because we have both placed our children into specialist schools. In both our cases the decision to do so was not taken lightly. It became apparent that, for the wellbeing of our children, we really had no choice. Yes, we know what the research says, but we also know very well what our children’s individual needs and tolerances are, and we always put those first and foremost. Whatever we might have originally hoped for, we had to accept that our children, in their way, were telling us that they needed something different. We did not consign our little ones to the educational bin, we did what was best for them as individuals.
There is one thing that we both agree on – that the best school for any child is one where their needs are met, and where they are happy, be that Mainstream, Specialist, or home schooling.
Many children with Down’s Syndrome thrive in Mainstream School, and when that happens it’s fantastic — good news for everyone. But there are some who do not cope in the Mainstream School environment, or who do not have a Mainstream School in their area that is willing and able to fully accommodate their needs. Mainstream does not work out for everyone. So, what are these children supposed to do for an education?
Pre-1970 local authorities were not legally obliged to provide any education for children with Down’s Syndrome, so many did not go to school at all. If you believe that children with Down’s Syndrome should never be placed in Specialist Schools, then you risk sending some children, for whom Mainstream School is not suitable, back to the pre-70s situation where there was no suitable educational provision for them. These children would have no opportunity to learn and make friends, one parent would have to give up work to stay at home with them, and quality of life would be reduced for the whole family. If you wanted to create a situation in which more people receiving a prenatal diagnosis would choose to abort, then this would be the way to go about it.
At least as the situation stands now we have options. Children with Down’s syndrome can go to Mainstream School, and for many the placement will be a success. Those for whom Mainstream does not work out for one reason or another have the option to go to a Specialist School.
Children who go to a Specialist School are not pushed in there and forgotten about – it’s not like the bad old days of the long-stay hospital. They are not hidden away. They live at home with their families in ordinary streets and neighbourhoods. They have mums, dads, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours. They can go to Scouts, Brownies, swimming lessons, dance classes, whatever they like, alongside other kids, typical kids. They are a visible and active part of the wider community (as Specialist schools often are).
Why would anyone be against a child with Down’s going to Specialist School if they needed to? Why would anyone think that forcing a child to attend a Mainstream School, where that individual child was manifestly unhappy and unable to cope, was the best thing for them?
Is there a hierarchy of acceptability amongst people with Down’s syndrome? Are only the ones who go to Mainstream School, are ‘high functioning’, high achievers, those who can come close to the ‘typical’ norms, acceptable? Are the children who need specialist education not good enough for you? Are they not good enough to represent Down’s Syndrome? Are they ‘less than’, less worthy, less deserving of rights? Is it really YOU that wants to hide the ‘Special School children’ away, because you are afraid they will taint the fight for acceptance by being ‘unacceptable’? And what are you saying about all the children who go to Specialist School for reasons other than Down’s Syndrome? Are they less worthy, too?
If we do not accept and embrace the worth of ALL of humanity, the ‘high functioning’, ‘low functioning’, physically impaired, or those with very complex needs, then we might as well jump into bed with the eugenicists.
My child needs me to be an advocate for him as an individual, so if you think I’m ‘letting the side’ down by placing him in Specialist School, then hard cheese, old bean. My child’s needs come before your opinions. And yes, I am in the best position to know what my child’s needs are and what’s best for him. Some children with Down’s syndrome do need a specialist education. Accept it. Get over it.
For more on my view of Specialist Schools, click here: