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This is a big investment of time and money, requiring plenty of planning and organizing. Teamwork must be in its highest form. All for one kid who has little formal communication skills, uses a wheelchair, wears contact lenses, glasses, leg braces, hearing aids and uses an Assistive Listening Device.
At first, school was very confusing and scary to Ben. He cried a lot, quit eating and had to take a lot of breaks. There are so many adults and kids, so many different places to go. I worried if he was unable to see or hear well enough to assimilate what on earth was happening.
But no one gave up. Not a teacher, not a specialist, not the principal, and not one of the 895 kids that go to Goleta Valley Junior High. Despite Ben's confusion and fear, expectations for his learning and successful participation at school never decreased. I noticed a stronger determination amongst his educational team and his fellow students to learn about Ben and what he was trying to convey with his use of numerous informal communications.
Then one day, precisely two weeks after school started, Ben suddenly understood. He didn't cry anymore at school, and he couldn't sleep Sunday night because of the excitement he felt in anticipation of the school day to come on Monday. He started making more choices in what he wanted to wear, eat and do, as well as attentively listening to the teachers during the day and responding to "yes" and "no" questions on tests. Last week he received his first real C+ on his Progress Report.
I couldn't have been more proud.
The kids all started becoming more familiar to him, and he learned to recognize the voices and touch of teachers.
In technology class Ben is learning about electronics, computer technology, and machinery. In turn, he teaches his class partners about the technologies he uses to access his environment and participate in class and in society.
Ben hits the pavement in P.E. on his bike, alongside his 60 classmates as they run the mile. In art class, he uses his electric scissors to cut out pictures. He sketched a tennis shoe with his vibrating pencil. In keyboarding class he activates numerous computer programs using switches. As an aide in the cafeteria he is becoming more and more the cook as he uses his electric peeler.
In theater arts Ben has become part of the curriculum. Most of the students raise their hands when the teacher asks who would like to be in Ben's group, and then she challenges them to think creatively how Ben can be included in their class assignment.
Last week, through dance and movement, the students performed a vignette of the morning sun rising. Using the toggle on his wheelchair, Ben slowly rose to standing, smiling as if he were the morning sun, as his classmates danced around him clelebrating his arrival.
I attended Back to School Night almost two weeks ago. The theatre arts teacher announced to the parents in her room, "This is the most loving and caring group of students I have ever taught."
I knew why.
The keyboarding teacher spoke of diversity and the gifts of all children. Ben's art teacher was thrilled to report that once she started wearing the microphone to Ben's Assistive Listening Device, he started to laugh at her jokes.
Recently, I emailed the principal to tell her how much I appreciated the way the school embraced Ben, and she responded by saying how proud she was to have him there. When I told Ben what the principal of such a big school said, he smiled from ear to ear.
Not a day goes by without Ben's inclusion teacher reporting of all the kids Ben helped that day. Kids whose lives are otherwise dysfunctional at home -- who have never found self-esteem--seem to find it with Ben.
These kids whose learning disabilities are not visible to the naked eye, with trouble concentrating, reading or getting their computer started. Because Ben is there, so are those who support him, always willing to lend other students a hand and the support they need.
This is what inclusion is all about.
On Thursday I picked up Ben a little early from school. As we were leaving, 7th period P.E. class came ripping around the corner and in stampede form headed in our direction. We had no choice but to stand still and wait as one by one the kids stopped only long enough to say, "Hey, Ben!"
There wasn't one patronizing pat on the head. Just the respect for a fellow student who has brought something to them that often gets lost in the pressure to excel academically. Something priceless that only successful lives include.
by Terry Kozloff
Supported living, employment, and day services