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Examining the Choices and Challenges for People with Disabilities

A two-day conference at TC on November 14 and 15 examined controversial issues pertaining to disability--from eugenics to support for assisted suicides.

The conference, When Worlds Collide: Choices and Challenges for People with Disabilities, was sponsored by the Center for Outcomes and Opportunities for People with Disabilities at TC.

Linda Hickson, the Director of the Center and Professor of Education at TC, said, "In spite of dramatic progress in expanding the rights of people with disabilities to be included in the mainstream of school and society, they often encounter ignorance, rejection and hostility."

She said that the conference was an opportunity to focus on "issues that have remained unresolved throughout history and to examine possible solutions in light of their potential to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities."

Experts affiliated with the Center for Outcomes and Opportunities, Teachers College faculty members and alumni, and members of the faculties of the Columbia School of Public Health and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center provided a forum for a variety of perspectives and disciplines on the pressing issues affecting the lives of people with disabilities.

The opening session of the conference, Perspectives on Education--Reform and Disability, featured Professor Thomas Sobol, who discussed major issues confronting schools in their efforts to provide effective and inclusive education services for students with and without disabilities. "Everybody is talking about high standards for all kids," said Professor Sobol. "Some kids have severe learning disabilities. Is it fair to hold them to the same high standards as everyone else? Or as some people say, is it better to hold them to the same high standards, even if they occasionally fail?"

Paul K. Longmore, Associate Professor of History at San Francisco State University, has written extensively on disability rights activists and assisted suicide. Longmore is convinced that there are deeply held prejudicial attitudes in society concerning people with disabilities, which have led, for example, to public support for assisted suicide. Longmore was able to participate in the session via videoconferencing technology connecting TC and SFSU.

Another session, From Eugenics to Genetics: Issues in the Prevention of Disabilities, looked at controversial efforts to eliminate or prevent disabilities. David Smith, who received his Ed.D. from TC and is now Dean for the School of Education and Human Services, Longwood College, traced trends in the eugenics movement in the context of historic efforts to eradicate disabilities.

The most profound assertion Smith made was a direct link between the early U.S. eugenics movement to the "Race Hygiene" program in Nazi Germany, which, he said, was the foundation of the Holocaust.

He also discussed the human genome project, where sophisticated science is exploring genetic engineering. He asked, "If we can engineer the removal of some disabilities--for example dyslexia--should we do this? Should a person who has the dyslexia gene be prevented from having children?" He continued, "We have to ask what are disabilities, what are our responsibilities, and is society's response simply prevention? Or should we embrace diversity, and will our schools be willing to address diversity when it comes to learning styles?"

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