If my son, Alek, had been born in my parents’ generation, he would have been locked in an institution.
If he would have been born during my own generation, he would have spent his entire life in either a school for “special children” or tucked away in some corner of our school building, taking part in special events or outings from their classroom.
But Alek was born in 2009. He was born in a generation that strives to break stereotypes and taboos. He was born in a generation where we can go to the movies, to the park, to the grocery store and see children of every type. He is so lucky to grow up in a generation that recognizes that locked behind his diagnosis is a wonderful little boy who is just like the rest of us.
Today he will go to school and sit in a classroom of children who are also lucky enough to grow up in this generation. They are growing up with different people all around them. In every classroom there are children who have autism, who are in wheelchairs or need other adaptive equipment. Children with Down syndrome, with cerebral palsy, with intellectual disability, and the list goes on and on and on.
This is the generation who will play with the kids who are “different” on the playground. These are the kids who will simply say hello to the person in a wheelchair, not staring in confusion at the contraption as it passes them by. This is the generation who will look at my son, and see a person. As they become adults, this generation of people will see the true value and purpose of all people.
As I hear of kids in Alek’s class treating him like any other student, reminding him of his responsibilities on their own, including him in recess, and taking the time to exchange short sentences at lunch, I am filled with a sense of respect and awe for those who came before me.
This did not happen by magic. This is not something I did. Parents fought for generations just so my son could learn with his peers. Every major piece of legislation that has forced previous generations to allow children like my son to leave the institutions, to allow individuals with disabilities in schools, in regular classrooms, this was fought for by parents. I will be eternally thankful for those people. And I will continue to fight. To advocate.
Every time I see budget cuts to education, every time I hear of one more “rollback” of outdated legislation, I carefully scour the articles. It may have taken us six years of therapy, forcing Alek to do things he sometimes physically refused to do . . . having entire teams of people who worked tirelessly to reach into his world and pull him out. To adapt the world to his needs, until he could adapt himself to our world. Yes, this may have taken my family six years to reach this point. But it took more than six decades of parents fighting for us to even have this opportunity.
I can close my eyes and my heart to the politics. To the exhaustion of listening to sane people exchange ugly words on every platform of social media. I can ignore the changes to laws believing they do not have any bearing on my life. Things are going great for my son today. But when I close my eyes, I cannot stop the images of those times in high school, when I would smile at the “SPED” kids as they walked through the hallways, in a group, ushered from one part of the building to another, sequestered from the rest of us, believing I was doing them some great kindness by simply saying hello and giving a high-five. Or I imagine the videos I watched in school, of institutions where hundreds of special needs people were left by their families, because that was the “best” thing for them. Living their lives alone, faces pressed to the window as they longed for the freedom to play outside. I can just see what Alek would have been, had he been born in my parents’ generation. A nonverbal person who spent his life locked away from the world, living in buildings with caretakers . . . without his family. Many places in near squalor. Some of these places in the U.S. did not finally close until after the year 2000.
Alek is a gift. He is our gift. Today he will go to school and receive a gift from thousands of parents and educators from the last hundred years. His education in a classroom is a precious resource, one I promise to jealously safeguard for the millions of children who will come after him.