Over the past week or so, I’ve come across several stories of high school students with Down syndrome being crowned Homecoming royalty. Rachel Cooperstein, of Dublin, CA, was crowned Homecoming Queen (she is also a varsity cheerleader). Jeffery Meyer and Rachel Wilson of Dacula, GA were crowned king and queen, respectively, at their school’s homecoming festivities. Owen Phariss of Lawrence, KS, Mike Winter of Madison Heights, MI, Josh Klein of Solon, IA, Laurelle Hellinga of Longmont, CO, and Betsy Daniel of Chester, SD, have all been bestowed with similar honors this fall at their respective schools. Two generations ago, these events would not have been possible.
When my parents were growing up, children with Down syndrome (and others with disabilities) weren’t usually weren’t offered an education. Until the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, many states explicitly excluded children with disabilities (note that this was over a decade AFTER the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964). Although the EAHCA (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) provided for a “free and appropriate education” for children with disabilities, it would be many more years before the ideas of mainstreaming and inclusion took hold.
When Mr. Andi and I were growing up, children with disabilities attended school, but they were typically segregated from their peers. As a result, many of us rarely interacted or were friends with people who had intellectual disabilities – in fact, Mr. Andi told me on Nathan’s second day of life that he had never known anyone with Down syndrome (I was more fortunate – a family at our church had a son close to my age with an intellectual disability, and I have always had a special place in my heart for Floyd Powell, Jr.) Today, children with disabilities are integrated as much as possible with their peers. Studies show that inclusion and mainstreaming benefit the children with disabilities, but I would also argue that their peers benefit, as well. High school students from California to South Dakota to Georgia and many places in between are recognizing the individual worth of their peers with Down syndrome. Yes, there are probably students at each of these schools who have made disparaging comments about or to the students with Down syndrome (I’m not naive), but they clearly aren’t the majority.
Despite the negative attitude that many in our society still have toward individuals with Down syndrome and the shockingly high abortion rate of those diagnosed in utero, I am encouraged by stories like these. Had Nathan been my uncle instead of my son, he might have been institutionalized. Had he been my brother instead of my son, he would have been educated but segregated. Who knows to what heights he may soar now that inclusion is the norm.
I dare to dream.