When Genise Montecello was growing up her brother was separated from his peers and taken to a classroom off to the side, which she remembers being about the size of a broom closet. Her brother has a disability and she feels his education wasn’t seen as important because of this.
“People don’t remember to take into account students with disabilities and their accommodations they might need,” Montecello said. “So, it happens more frequently than people would believe that it does.”
Montecello spent 24 years teaching special education in Saint Louis. She said her children felt like their voices didn’t matter and was inspired to help in a different way.
Now, she’s the state representative for the 92nd district, Saint Louis, fighting for the rights of those in special education on the legislative end, making sure they don’t get left behind.
“What I saw was my brother, continues to this day, face difficulties reading and to some degree functioning and I think that we need to make sure that we’re pushing students to learn to their best ability and capacity. It doesn’t mean that students can’t learn,” Montecello said.
But talk about inclusion and even educating children with disabilities has not always been a priority and has come a long way since then.
Dr. George Giuliani, the executive director at National Association of Special Education Teachers, said the history of fighting for children’s rights dates back to right after World War II, when in 1948 only about 12 percent of children with disabilities were receiving any kind of special education. And, he said, most of the time those education programs weren’t offering much value.
“Students with disabilities went to special schools or classes that focused on learning manual skills, such as weaving and like bead stringing,” Giuliani said. “So, although there might have been programs that existed it was very clear that discrimination was still as strong as ever for students with disabilities in school.”
Giuliani said although Brown v Board of Education doesn’t have to do with special education specifically- it has been used by parents and advocates to argue students with disabilities should not have “separate but equal” facilities. And in the 1960’s a larger movement of parents took to the courts to help their children.
“So, what started to happen for the first time in this country is that some parents began to take legal action against their school districts when they felt that their children’s rights were being violated,” Giuliani said.
On November 29, 1975 the first federal law for students with disabilities was enacted, now called IDEA. Since then there have been four amendments to this law, with the most recent being eleven years ago.
Now, Giuliani said with the No Child Left Behind act, there is more focus on collecting and working with data. But in the future, he thinks the move towards inclusion will take precedence, especially with advancements in technology.
“What can we be doing for children, especially those who are nonverbal? If you’ve seen there has been so much research coming out on iPads for children with autism and their ability to communicate and use the iPad,” Giuliani said. “So, I think there’s a lot with assistive technology, there’s a lot with universal design for learning and inclusion.”
Lara Wakefield said educators, administrators and parents need to understand the importance of this history. Wakefield runs Wakefield Consultation Services, helping parents as an outside resource during Individualized Education Program or IEP meetings. She said people forget that special education started with parents advocating for their children and the school system is where it is today thanks to them.
“And then yet, you sit across the table from these individuals now and they complain about what parents want in the IEP,” Wakefield said. “I think that’s the biggest concern for me, is that all of these individuals, especially administrators, have forgotten that it is the parent who is the most important part of the team and it is the child who we should all be there working for.”
Wakefield said although knowing the history can benefit all sides, empathy helps the most.