On November 30, approximately 200 people gathered in Harrisburg to learn and reflect on Inclusive Education for students with disabilities. The PADDC provided financial support for this important event.
In the past, Pennsylvania had key wins for inclusive education. In recent years, progress has lagged in PA. Its ranking for inclusive education is in the lower third of all states. Pennsylvania’s ranking for due process hearing requests is near the top.
The PEAL Center organized the #NextGenInclusion event as a forward-thinking event. It was a reminder and an inspiration for family leaders, the disability community, and policymakers alike. The day reminded us of the many documented benefits of inclusive education and the lifelong cost of segregation. The outcome hoped for is that Pennsylvania’s inclusion efforts get a “kick-start” (an action that pushes forward something that has either quit working or is moving too slowly).
The power of personal stories from speakers gained an attentive audience. Michael and Andrew Peterson and their father shared their experience and commitment to an inclusive world. A morning panel presentation grounded the audience in our Pennsylvania history of inclusive education. The panel included Joseph Gaskin (lead plaintiff in the 1990’s case Gaskin vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania); Judith Gran (one of the attorneys who represented the Gaskin plaintiffs & other important education cases); and Sherri Landis (Executive Director of The Arc of Pennsylvania – the advocacy organization that won the PARC Consent Decree in the early 70’s). The panel was moderated by Robin Cunconan-Lahr.
In the afternoon, we heard from Valerie Williams, Director in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). She spoke about federal efforts to improve inclusive education and practices. Williams also reminded us of some advocacy rules to live by. Afterwards, Pennsylvania youth and parents shared their efforts. They included: Sienna Bell and her mother Linda Carmona-Bell; Alex Lee and his mother Cecilia Lee, and Megan Neeson and her mother Marisa Neeson. The panel was moderated by Graciela Slesaransky-Poe.
Dr. Jenna Rufo‘s presentation was called “Inclusion in PA: What Will It Take?” Her thought-provoking talk centered on three main areas: Beliefs, Structures, and Accountability. Finally, Michael McSheehan spoke about current best practices to carry over into the next generation of Inclusion. He encouraged attendees to consider additional inclusion strategies, such as directly challenging ableism and bias. In addition to inclusion, McSheehan promoted the idea of systems change by creating disability affirming spaces and educational experiences. An affirming space welcomes and honors all bodies, all abilities, all identities, and all experiences.
Notable Quotes from #NextGenInclusion
“People with disabilities represent everyone. The disability community needs to be at the front of this inclusive movement.” – Carol Clancy, Bureau of Special Education, Pennsylvania, Department of Education.
“Let me win. If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt…I seek a greater reward. I don’t ever want your pity. I need your respect.” – Andrew Peterson
“Be brave, be bold, be urgent…Knowledge is power. Shared knowledge is empowerment.” – Valerie Williams, Director of the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education
“Inclusion is not an initiative, it’s systemic change. If we treat it as anything other than that, it’s not going to be effective…What happens now, makes all the difference in the future.” – Dr. Jenna Mancini Rufo
“Pursuing one student at a time at one point in time is great for that kid at that point in time. I understand and support that work. But it doesn’t move a system.” – Michael McSheehan
Some Photo Memories for #NextGenInclusion*
*Thank you to the PEAL Center & Maggie Reardon Gaines for use of photographs!