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Spirit of inclusion helps disabled to thrive
May 23, 2006
Publisher: San Jose Mercury News

San Jose Mercury News

The nation recently was captivated by the athletic feat of Jason McElwain, the autistic teenager in Rochester, N.Y. After serving all season as manager of his high school basketball team, McElwain was put into the last game of the season, and promptly scored 20 points, including six three-pointers, in a matter of minutes.

McElwain's scoring was only one of the noteworthy elements of that basketball game. Equally memorable was the support he received from coaches, other players, parents and students. They encouraged him to be a part of the team, chanted for the coach to put him in the game, cheered wildly when he made baskets.

This inclusion for autistics and other kids with disabilities in regular schools and activities represents one of the sea changes in education. Up through the 1960s and 1970s, kids with disabilities were mainly in separate schools or separate classes within schools. Today, many of these kids, like McElwain, are in regular schools, and are active in school activities, including athletic teams.

My son, William, 16, is an autistic who attends Washington High School, a large public high school in San Francisco. He is on the cross-country and track teams. Unlike Jason McElwain, William is not a good athlete. Despite regular training for more than eight years, William has come in last place in nearly all of the more than 40 races he has run. Usually, he is a lap or two behind the front-runners in the two-mile or even in the mile. He has never had a breakout performance like McElwain's. But I think the participation benefits him, and has encouraged other less-talented students to participate in athletics. His participation is encouraged by teammates and cheered at the meets.

School inclusion still has a way to go, especially in the classroom. Teachers at times resent the inclusion students, and fellow students ignore them. On the other side, parents often expect too much from the school and fail to take responsibility for the remedial tutoring or homework assistance that the student needs. Yet, even in the classroom, inclusion has been a better alternative than separate classes, with the inclusion students often bringing unusual skills in math, science or history to the learning process.

While school inclusion has moved forward during the past two decades, workforce inclusion has lagged. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 was expected to reduce the high unemployment, estimated at 50 to 70 percent, among adults with disabilities. Instead, studies by Cornell professor Richard Burkhauser and Federal Reserve Bank economist Mary Daly have found that the unemployment rate has been static, and possibly even increased, in the past 15 years.

During the same time, the number of workers with disabilities who are unemployed and receiving Supplemental Security Income has skyrocketed. An average of 6.3 million workers with disabilities received SSI in 1999, at a cost of $34 billion to the federal and state governments.

Increasing employment among workers with disabilities will require changes in the structure of SSI, to encourage and support work changes similar in many ways to the welfare changes that promoted work. It will also require building on the targeted employment programs that have been effective in placement and retention of workers with disabilities.

Perhaps most of all, though, it will require an inclusion ethos in the workplace, similar to the ethos emerging in the schools. This ethos recognizes the value to the worker of being included in the workplace, rather than being warehoused and on public assistance. It also recognizes the unusual work skills, as well as an often greater work dedication, that these workers can bring to a workplace.

Greater workforce inclusion for autistics and other persons with disabilities, though more difficult than inclusion on basketball or track teams, is the next step in the inclusion process, and the real three-pointer.

Michael Bernick, research fellow at the Milken Institute, was the director of the state Employment Development Department from 1999-2004. His newest book is Job Training that Gets Results: 10 Principles of Effective Employment Programs.