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Conference At TC Examines Issues Affecting People With Disabilities

The direction of public policy and research affecting disabled individuals was the topic of a conference sponsored by TC's Center for Opportunities and Outcomes for People with Disabilities.

"When Worlds Collide '00: Charting the Agenda for the New Millennium," took place over two days in early March, drawing academics, researchers, teachers, people with disabilities and their families from around the country. Though the conference dealt with many issues affecting people with disabilities, several speakers addressed the importance of integrating special education and general education.

Anastasia Somoza, a 16-year-old advocate for classroom integration, and television journalist and author John Hockenberry, conducted a conversation on the topic. Both Somoza and Hockenberry are wheelchair users-Somoza due to cerebral palsy and Hockenberry, a spinal cord injury-and because of their visibility have become spokespersons of sorts for people with disabilities.Somoza related the incident that brought her and the cause of integration national attention. In the early 1990s Anastasia was able to attend regular classes, but her twin sister Alba, who also has cerebral palsy but isn't able to communicate through speech, was prohibited by the school's principal from attending. Then in 1993 during a televised question-and-answer session President Clinton held with a group of youth, Somoza asked the President to help in enrolling Alba in regular classes. Clinton was visibly moved by her plea and evidently others were too. Anastasia and Alba were soon in class together.

"I just want people to know that even though we have disabilities, it doesn't mean we can't learn and understand things that kids without disabilities can learn,'' explained Somoza. "The most important thing for teachers to do, is to look at us and have the same expectations for us as they do for the other students."

"Freedom and opportunity are about the opportunity to fail, as well as succeed," added Hockenberry, who is a reporter for NBC's Dateline.The integrated classroom helps students without disabilities understand that those with disabilities are no different than they are, and helps them examine the way they interact with people with disabilities, explained Somoza. Of her experience attending special education classes Somoza said, "It didn't help prepare us for what the real world is like."

In a separate presentation, Renee Bradley, special assistant to the director of research for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, traced the progress people with disabilities have made toward full integration in the 25 years since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. In the 1970s, only one in five children with disabilities were educated, while today about 95 percent of toddlers and children are educated in public schools and 72 percent of children with disabilities attend regular classrooms.

"We are at a critical juncture where we may be on a collision course with general education," Bradley said of current efforts toward integration. In particular, Bradley sees the need for teachers who are trained to deal with students in an integrated classroom.

The conference included the inaugural Leonard and Frances Blackman Lecture-named for and endowed by Professor Emeritus Leonard Blackman and his wife-delivered by H. Rutherford Turnbull III, Co-Director of the Beach Center on Families and Disability at the University of Kansas.

"These lectures have been endowed for the purpose of illuminating us on the vital issues of policy, research, and practice as they relate to the education and rehabilitation of individuals with mental retardation and other special needs," Professor Blackman explained in his introduction.

Turnbull, who is the father of Jay Turnbull, a 32-year-old man with mental retardation, outlined the platform people with disabilities and their advocates are using to lobby lawmakers, and the vision they are working toward. Their vision is for an "enviable life." A life that offers self-determination, that values their joy more than their IQ or adaptive behavior, and that allows them to have a broad network of friends and a family quality of life.

Turnbull outlined the strategies for advocating the needed changes. These include lobbying on the federal, state and local levels in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. These efforts must appeal to the traditional American values of life, liberty, equality, community, family and dignity.

"We have never been at such risk as we are today," Turnbull said. "We must assert that people with disabilities have their own contributions to make to society."

The final presentation of the conference, given by University of Alberta Professor Dick Sobsey, outlined ways to prevent people with disabilities from being victims of abuse.

He pointed out disturbing statistics that show children with developmental disabilities are three to four times as likely as other children to be the target of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. And adults with developmental disabilities may be at least twice as likely as other adults to be physically accosted and ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted. Sobsey indicated that those who want to reduce this risk must implement social reforms along with teaching and empowering the individuals to resist abuse.

When asked to sum up the importance of the conference to Teachers College, Linda Hickson, Director of the Center for Opportunities and Outcomes for People with Disabilities, said, "I think one of the biggest benefits of the conference for the TC community is that it starts a dialog on these important subjects between TC and the world at large. After three years of holding the conference we feel that we have widened our circle of contacts."previous page