The following guest post was contributed by Timothy Villegas, a special educator in Marietta, Ga. Timothy and a small but mighty group of Georgians are working to organize a Georgia TASH Chapter. He is encouraging all interested Georgians to please consider going to the Georgia TASH Facebook page and pressing “like” to get more information on this exciting venture. You can also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for future mailings.
Where to begin? This was the first time I have gone to the TASH Conference in my eight years of being an educator. I was first introduced to TASH in my teacher training at Cal State University Fullerton with most of my professors belonging to and promoting the organization. It was there (at CSUF) I learned about inclusive education for students with severe disabilities, which to me was a foreign concept. I remember distinctly arguing against integration for students with severe behavior challenges and intellectual disabilities and uttering phrases like “What are they going to get out of being in general education?” These ideas (fortunately) are in my past and after beginning to include all of my students with severe autism in general education, I was a convert who did my best to influence other educators to think inclusively. Going to the TASH Conference was sort of a homecoming for me in the way that the same ideas and values that gave me a passion for inclusion and working with students with the most significant disabilities, were as present as the day they were as I sat in on my first lectures about inclusive education. Now, being a Georgia educator, it was very special to have the conference be in Atlanta and having the privilege of presenting with a group about inclusion.
One of my biggest takeaways from the TASH Conference was a question that Norman Kunc raised at the Welcome Dinner and helped shape my experience for the rest of the time at the conference. When you see a person with a disability, where do you locate the problem? In the person with the disability (meaning they are broken and need to be fixed)? Or, in the environment, that there are systemic problems that keep a person with a disability from accessing full membership in their schools and communities. Too often, like John O’Brien spoke about it his keynote address, people with disabilities are invisible. As a teacher for students with severe and profound disabilities, I see our children continually be underestimated (sometimes even by myself) and undervalued in the community at large. It is difficult to change your paradigm when your presumptions are faulty. Even with the best circumstances and attitudes, “They can’t” or “They’re not ready” are some of the first words that come out of people’s mouths. I understand the irony of a self-contained teacher at the TASH Conference talking about inclusion … but creating lasting change in a system that is not setup for change is a slog and from hearing many stories at the conference it happens one person at a time.
If anything, the TASH conference renewed my vision of who I want to be as an educator. Someone who takes the “Least Dangerous Assumption” and presumes competence, has high expectations for all students, and focuses on human dignity. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of work that still needs to be done to create inclusive schools and communities, but to quote Carl Sandburg, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.”
Timothy Villegas lives with his fetching wife and adorable children in Marietta, Ga., by way of Pasadena, Calif. He has been a special educator for eight years and enjoys every bit of the drama of inclusive education (and is an obsessive user of parenthetical expression). Follow him on Twitter: @think_inclusive or to peek inside his brain … peruse his Tumblr: https://thinkinclusive.tumblr.com/ He promises to be nice.