Last month this newspaper published two stories describing the treatment of people with disabilities in school settings. In one (May 20), Carrigain Rowan of Scarborough and her mother, Erin Rowan, objected to a required book in Carrigain’s seventh-grade English curriculum that contained stigmatizing themes and the derogatory term “retard.” The other story (May 17) focused on a proposed bill in the Maine Legislature prohibiting the use of physical restraints and seclusion in schools, 90 percent of which target students with disabilities.

“We can’t forget our long history of excluding people with disabilities and their families from making decisions that profoundly affect their lives,” Stephen Murphy says. Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock.com

Both articles reflect our persistent ambivalence about the roles and rights of individuals with disabilities in contemporary society. On one hand, we proclaim allegiance to social inclusion and people’s rightful place in our communities. On the other, we undermine our pledges of inclusion by perpetuating a disability history replete with prejudice and discrimination.

The Rowans contend that the required book contains material that both hurts Carrigain personally and undermines her peer relationships. School officials suggest that the book is a valuable teaching tool about disability issues and that excluding it based on one family’s complaints represents a form of censorship. While this text may have educational merit if introduced carefully and collaboratively with members of the disability community, we can’t forget our long history of excluding people with disabilities and their families from making decisions that profoundly affect their lives. Individuals with relevant, lived experiences, like the Rowans, can serve as valuable teaching resources on the real-life consequences of decisions such as this.

History tells us that the term “retard” represents more than a playground epithet or everyday insult. Terms like “idiot,” “moron,” etc., once served as official diagnostic classifications, endorsed by medical, educational and governmental entities, and applied to individuals with often-tragic consequences, such as institutionalization, involuntary sterilization and rights restrictions. As Erin was so aptly paraphrased: “The issue isn’t just about her and her daughter, but rather about a culture that doesn’t understand the history and struggles of the disabled community.”

The other newspaper story focused on the use of restraints and seclusion within our schools. Opponents of the proposed legislation defend such practices as needed and constructive tools for promoting social integration and managing “students, often the size of grown adults, (who) … push, hit, bite, kick, choke … staff or other students.”

Using such menacing images of students with disabilities is hardly an effective strategy for enhancing social inclusion. Nor is such demonizing something new. In the 1980s, at what was then the Pineland Hospital and Training Center (which closed in 1996), officials created the so-called “Behavioral Stabilization Unit” to treat residents they claimed were violent, manifesting problems ranging from “pedophilia (and) pyromania” to “promiscuity (and) schizophrenia.”

Maine Times reporter Pat Nyhan questioned both the link between disability and violent behavior and claims that aversive therapies were effective. Her reporting showed how the menacing images surrounding the Behavioral Stabilization Unit and the rationale for it could lead to the strong opposition that ensued in the 1990s to closing Pineland and socially integrating its residents. Public officials and the media warned about releasing “unsupervised,” “dangerous” former residents into Maine communities. Apparently, that image still lingers in our collective consciousness and public policies.

According to Maine’s Department of Education, the Press Herald reported, our schools use physical restraint and seclusion as much or more than nearly every other state’s schools, and their use continues to climb dramatically. Between 2015 and 2020 the use of restraints more than doubled to 17,262 and seclusion increased from 2,802 to 4,417. We are literally doubling down on practices that yield only worsening results, failing to reduce problem behaviors or teach adaptive alternatives.

Numerous books describe the contemporary lives of people with disabilities and the challenges they face without relying on devaluing stereotypes or language. Likewise, a quick search online reveals a host of techniques that effectively address aggressive and self-abusive behaviors using positive interventions and supports. What seems more difficult to find is the conviction to face our cultural devaluation of persons with disabilities honestly and demand long-overdue accountability and change from our social and political institutions.


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