Can Benevolence Get in the Way of Equality and Ordinary Opportunities?

Barbara McKenzie is a longtime Ohio TASH member, presenter, facilitator and author of “Reflections of Erin – the Importance of Belonging, Relationships and Learning with Each Other.” She’s also a member of the Inclusive Education Committee for the TASH National Agenda.

After seeing the title, “It’s always sunny in Life Town,” and reading the article from the April 3 edition of the Columbus Dispatch, I wondered, “Can benevolence get in the way of equality and ordinary opportunities?”

The article was subtitled, “The mocked-up village square allows children with disabilities to learn the skills they need in daily life.” A separate space has been designed in a gymnasium for students with disabilities to be bussed from special education programs in as many as 76 central Ohio schools to, “practice the skills of daily life.” This pretend town, where “A normal day includes withdrawing $12 from the bank so the children can buy real things and attend real events from plans they make with their teachers,” is described as an “authentic environment.” Additional volunteers “try to make it as real as possible … Students practice handling money, being on time to events and avoiding hazards such as ladders and yellow floor signs. They make crafts for other students, to practice friendship-building.” 

This is written, as are many newspaper and magazine articles about children and adults with disabilities, as a feel good story. In effect they’re saying: Look at the inventive idea they’ve come up with to help these children turn their lives around; What a creative way to help these students prepare themselves to be members of society; Look how happy these children are; What a wonderful thing they are doing for these children. 

A generous person wants to help. We are taught to help others; it feels good to help others. But what perceptions might that helper and helpee relationship procreate?  Is the helper somehow better than the helpee?  Does the helpee always need to be helped, never given the opportunity to share his or her gifts and enjoy the good feelings we get from our generosity?  Do we believe that the helpee has anything to share? 

More importantly, why, especially when it comes to children or adults with disabilities, do we feel we must create special, pretend places to practice in and learn the skills to interact in society, in the “real” world? Why can’t we try and figure out how to provide genuine, authentic, ordinary opportunities for all IN the real world? If natural supports or additional assistance are needed for any of us to be participating members of our neighborhood community, can’t we work together to come up with ways to do that? Don’t we all learn better with and from each other in the real world, in the real school, in our real community? 

Do our good intentions sometimes get in the way?

Barb McKenzie, Ohio