Special Education

New York Times on Educating Children With Severe Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — June 21, 2010 1 min read
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I’m sure my regular readers would have already seen the front-page story that was in The New York Times about a city school’s attempts to incorporate more academic goals into educating students with severe disabilities.The story focused on Donovan Forde, a 20-year-old student who is blind and living with the effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered when he was an infant:

Donovan Forde was dozing when the teacher came around to his end of the table. Pale winter light filtered in through the grated classroom window, and the warm room filled softly with jazz. It fell to his teacher's aide to wake him up from his mid-morning nap. She shined a small flashlight back and forth in his eyes like a dockworker signaling a ship, and called his name. Then she put her hand on his cheek, steering his head forward as he focused his eyes. The teacher, Ricardo Torres, placed a red apple against Donovan's closed left hand, and then held it near his nose so he could smell it. "Donovan, the fruit holds the seeds of the plant," he said. Then Mr. Torres held a plastic container of apple seeds to Donovan's ear, shaking it, and placed Donovan's hand inside so he could feel them. "And these are the seeds," Mr. Torres said. He watched Donovan's eyes and face for a sign he had understood, a smile, nod, a noise. Donovan gently pulled his hand away. No one knew if he had grasped it. At a time when his peers are enrolled in college or earning money at jobs, Donovan, a handsome 20-year-old with a sliver of a mustache, is still in public school, being taught the most basic of facts. His vocabulary for this science unit, which lasted about two weeks, was three words: seeds, fruit and juice. And yet, because of his cognitive disabilities brought on by a traumatic brain injury at nearly 6 months old, it is almost impossible to know what he comprehends and retains. After 15 years in the New York City school system, he is less reserved and more social, but otherwise has shown almost no progress, his mother said. Once predominantly isolated in institutions, severely disabled students have been guaranteed a free, appropriate public education like all children since the passage of federal legislation in 1975. In the years since, school districts across the country have struggled to find a balance between instruction in functional skills and academics while providing basic custodial care.

I thought the article was nicely written; my editor wondered what the news rationale was for doing this particular story now. But, I figure that people who are not advocates, parents or school officials might not know that there’s a push to introduce more academic components into the education of students with severe disabilities. That’s probably enough of a news peg for a general-circulation paper like The New York Times. At Education Week we might frame the topic a different way, because we have a different audience.

What do you think?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.