Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Children and adults with special needs are struggling to find their place in this world, even after all this time. For centuries, people with individual needs and challenges have been institutionalized or removed from general society to prevent them from being with the general population. Granted, some people with complex needs will need more care and might be less capable of meaningful association with others, but that does not mean that we can send them all away. Less than fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for people with Cerebral Palsy or Down syndrome to be institutionalized at birth. It did not matter if the people were capable of productive lives or not. They must be housed in an institution. For this reason, many people did not thrive when they could have.
Our laws and expectations have developed dramatically over the last forty years even. However, we are still not raising our standards of educational access and expectations of the most vulnerable of our society. People will generally rise or fall to our expectations. It is time that we start expecting rights for all so that they may all succeed in life.
Now, special education laws say that students must be placed in the least restrictive environment at school. However, the student is rarely asked what the least restrictive environment is for them. Many school systems are still placing these students in self-contained special education classes and not putting them with their typical peers. This is providing a disservice to the peers and the student. Education is a fundamental human right, and the United States is founded upon extending those rights to all, but not all are receiving them, even nearly two-hundred-fifty years after our founding.
The rights to housing, marriage, employment opportunities, and other life experiences are also limited. Have you ever stopped to wonder why you see the “feel good” stories about the girl with Down syndrome modeling, attending college, or being a motivational speaker? Or the boy with Autism starting a business, creating a strong connection with someone, or designing a new product? It’s because we, as a society, do not believe that they are all capable of greatness. We are still practicing “institutionalization” at home. We are holding them back and not granting them the same opportunities that we grant other teens, children, and adults. Adults with special needs are more than capable of love, happiness, and productive lives. We have to ensure that they are allowed to participate in life.
This does not mean that we should allow people incapable of living alone to rent apartments without help, but we can push to make them more independent and work with our special needs populations to prepare them for life. There are still ministers who will not marry two people who have special needs.
They can still love and deserve to have that love recognized. Education, independence, and acceptance should not be special rights.
They are the rights of all.