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Archive for Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Tolerance is community job

June 18, 2003

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The recent incident in Lawrence in which a young man with disabilities was beaten by a group of teens as he walked home alone has wounded many people in our community. For the young man, Josh Graves, it is a cruel lesson that having a disability can provoke a physical assault. It was also a physically and emotionally painful way to begin his summer vacation.

For his mother, it is a confirmation of her worst fears for her son -- that for people with disabilities, establishing independence can be difficult -- and even dangerous. And for the young people who participated in the beating or who stood by and watched, and for their families, it is and will continue to be a painful opportunity to learn about the serious consequences of anti-social behavior at an early age.

"Take a Stand" is a new feature of the Journal-World Opinion pages intended to provide a forum for selected columns that explore issues in a more in-depth way than the Public Forum format allows. Columns should address subjects of general public interest and must be signed. The Journal-World reserves the right to edit. Submissions for this column can be sent to the Journal-World, Box 888, Lawrence 66044 or by e-mail to letters@ljworld.com. Please include an address and telephone number for confirmation purposes.

While some good has come from the incident, including community members who've responded by providing job opportunities and other items to Josh, it remains as an example, isolated or not, of intolerance in a community that takes pride in its diversity and quality of life.

The incident shows us that some young people growing up in Lawrence do not regard their peers with disabilities as full persons, due the same rights and respect as other persons; that having an intellectual disability, even more than having a physical disability, is seen as a negative personal attribute. And, most frightening, that it is OK to either actively victimize a person because of his differences, or to stand by idly as others do so.

As interested people express their abhorrence regarding the incident, and their wish to "do something," it seems timely to issue a reminder that these issues must be addressed at the systemic level. Research shows that children who experience inclusive education, that is, children who are educated together, instead of in segregated settings, are more likely to learn tolerance and acceptance along with their ABC's.

Students who happen to have a disability also need to participate equally in after-school activities, such as youth sports, 4-H, scouting, and other enriching experiences. Further, we must consider additional ways to foster inclusion and common opportunities for interaction, such as activities in the arts, in recreational programs and in paid work and volunteer activities.

Right now, state budget cuts are jeopardizing the opportunity of people with disabilities of all ages to be included in their communities. While money isn't the only answer, it is next to impossible to provide comprehensive programming, from classroom supports to community-based home care, to enriching opportunities, when budgets are being slashed to the bone.

Currently, a key piece of federal legislation that fosters equality for children with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is likely to be weakened by allowing local districts to devise their own standards for inclusion. Proposed changes in this legislation may limit opportunities for students with disabilities to be educated alongside their peers. Interested citizens should contact their federal legislators to stress the importance of keeping this legislation strong, as originally written.

An ongoing problem in our community is the lack of job opportunities for young people with disabilities. As nondisabled teenagers learn work ethics and how to conduct themselves in the workplace through after-school, weekend and summer jobs, young people with disabilities are typically denied these experiences. For many young people with disabilities, these "first" jobs come only after they have reached adulthood and are seeking work with which to support themselves. The lack of work experience on their resumes creates a serious deficit in the competitive job market.

Josh and his mother have done a good job in understanding and promoting the fact that people with disabilities have many capabilities, as well as the same need to be accepted as community members as those who are not disabled.

The way we respond to this larger need demonstrates how well we as a community value and support our members with disabilities. Perhaps most importantly, it is one of the ways that we teach our younger members about the dignity and worth of all community members.

-- Glen W. White and Dorothy E. Nary are affiliated with the Research and Training Center on Independent Living, which White directs. Michael L. Wehmeyer directs the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities. Both research centers are part of the Kansas University Schiefelbusch Institute on Life Span Studies.

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