I’d like to use today, Martin Luther King Day as a day to declare a ‘dream’ that I have. In 1994 in Salamanca Spain, a statement was made in a UNESCO World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality. The Statement was a Framework for action on Special Needs Education.
There were 300 participants representing 92 governments around the world and 23 world organizations and then after the conference the Salamanca Statement was born. We are now 20 years on from when that Statement was made and I want to use this document as a preface to my ‘dream’. Statement 1 declares that: T H E S A L A M A N C A S T A T E M E N T - We, the delegates of the World Conference on Special Needs Education representing ninety-two governments and twenty – five international organizations, assembled here in Salamanca, Spain, from 7-10 June 1994, here by reaffirm our commitment to Education for All, recognizing the necessity and urgency of providing education for children, youth and adults with special educational needs within the regular education system, and further here-by endorse the Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, that governments and organizations may be guided by the spirit of its provisions and recommendations (UNESCO, 1994, p. viii).
One of the principal declarations in this document is ‘recognizing the necessity and urgency’ for equal and quality education for all students with special needs and here we are 20 years on and I am unsure that urgency has been expedited. In my work as a consultant and trainer, I meet many parents and teachers of children (whom I prefer to term ‘difabled’ - that is, they are differently abled). The common denominator I hear from both parties are the frustrations around lack or resources, funding and understanding from governments and departments who are in charge of education. I have been completely shocked, flabbergasted and dismayed when teachers around the world tell me of classrooms that are oversized and have little support and that they would love to employ strategies based on my research, but don’t know how, given the environment and conditions of their work.
We can’t ignore this as a problem anymore. The statistics on Autism alone are going up yearly and the recent statistics in the USA is that one in 55 children in America are born on the Autism Spectrum (Pomerance, M. (2014) Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/50-american-kids-autism-latest-figures-article-1.1302872). This is going to be a significant problem to social welfare, employment and the parents of these children 20 years from now if we do not cater for this now.
The only way we can do that is by recognizing our education system is not working. It does not work for neurotypical children nor difabled children. We can no longer rely upon an antiquated 20th Century model and must look towards a productive, progressive model that focuses upon creative, differentiated learning, where children learn how to learn.
If I refer to my opening statement and think about Martin Luther King Jnr (King, 1963, retrieved from, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm) and look at his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, much of what he says can apply to our many difabled students. These kids are “crippled by the manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination”; they struggle to find acceptance in a world of judgment and find it even more difficult to be integrated into everyday life and activities because of lack of understanding and awareness.
These kids live on “a lonely island of poverty and ….find themselves in exile in their own land”. I met a delightful young man who is now 20 in Ohio. He is on the Autism Spectrum, but after five minutes conversing with him, I could sense his wit, intellect and organized thinking. Yet he was struggling to find anyone who would hire him, he is isolated living with his parents and has very little friends and has taken to living in the cyber world of gaming. All he needs is ONE employer to give him a chance and help him to function in the job with awareness, tolerance and understanding.
Mr King declares that “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”. He continued to state that this was for every human being irrespective of color and I would like to add that this also refers to ability, disability, difference, education, able or difabled; that these people also “would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’”.
Adding to the sentiments of Mr King, I don’t believe we are bankrupt of feeling or understanding. The one thing I am certain is that are many, many people in the USA, Australia, Britain, Canada, India; in fact countries all over the world who are doing amazing, extraordinary work to bring equality, justice and humanity to the individuals in this world who are ‘difabled’.
Mr King stated in 1963, “we have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now” and I’d like to do the same. “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children”; kids with different abilities do not need your pity, sadness or dismay. They do not need you to feel grief for them, ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist. They don’t need you to do the ‘work’ for them…they just need you to pave the way for them to have dignity and the right to co-exist equally and independently and then do the ‘work’ for themselves. These individuals and their families “cannot walk alone” and it is up to us a society to recognize how imperative this is to the development and evolution of our society. It is NO longer acceptable to be racist, as we can value and learn from the culture of others; it is NO longer acceptable to be ignorant to the needs of our difabled neighbors; for as a society we will learn and evolve as a community when we embrace who they are and learn from their differences.
So again, to quote the great Martin Luther King, “I have a dream”. I have a dream that education will be based on how children learn; focus upon the skills and not deficits; and teach children to be independent learners.
I have a dream that education will embrace differences and integrate all into the one classroom; so that all children will then learn from each other and value what each individual has to offer.
I have a dream that we will no longer see people through lack, disability and looks and instead we will see truly what that person has to offer.
I have a dream that we will teach our children to value each and every person, irrespective of how they look, what they can do, what they wear, how they speak, or how they act.
I have a dream that we will live in a society, culture, country and world where we recognize that all “are created equal”.
I have a dream that governments and those in charge or ‘education’ will provide an equal, integrated and inclusive education system. We should not forget the Salamanca Statement’s intent and we should certain heed the words of Mr King….where we were once focused on race and culture, we need to also recognize that those with differences are afforded the same dignity and respect.
King, M.L., (1963), American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches. Retrieved: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm 20/1/14.
Pomerance, R. (2014), Daily News: One in 50 American kids has autism: What the latest figures tell us. Retrieved: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/50-american-kids-autism-latest-figures-article-1.1302872#ixzz2qyH84aX3 20/1/14.
UNESCO, (1994), The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, retrieved, http://www.unesco.org/education/pdf/SALAMA_E.PDF 20/1/14.