This week, our son Tom presented a research project on the planet Mars at our local school district's science fair. As part of the process, Tom was required to bring his project to the high school the night before the show itself, and present his findings to a panel of judges. Each judge came around to each high-schooler, asked questions, and wrote up a little critique. While Tom wasn't competing (this year), he did speak to each judge, explaining his model of Mars (which featured an arctic pole, Olympus Mons, and the planet's two moons). He did a great job.
Tom at the Falmouth High School Science Fair from P Cook on Vimeo.
Perhaps needless to say, Tom was the only high schooler with special needs to present a project to the panel of judges. In fact, he may have been the only student with special needs to be a part of the science fair -- which, in the long run, included nearly 100 projects by students in every grade.
In talking with the head of the science department for the high school, who was present both at the evening presentations and during the fair itself, I heard her perspective on why so few special needs students took part. In essence, the teacher explained, "this type of project requires a lot of parental support and involvement, and that doesn't really happen with these kids."
Of course, she wasn't suggesting that parents don't love or support their children with special needs - but rather than parents don't spend time, energy and money on helping their children with special needs to conceive, plan and implement research projects for the district science fair. Even when I offered to serve as a resource next year, the response was luke warm: apparently no one really expects kids with special needs (or their parents) to bother.
I asked why the kids who DO participate bother to come. The reason, she explained, was that kids followed their friends. "If one kid gets involved, she brings her buddies along," she said. "You usually get kids in groups."
I thought long and hard about this experience. Granted, only a few students altogether were presenting their projects to judges. And granted, science fairs aren't everyone's cup of tea. But the reality is that, while "nothing" stands in the way of universal inclusion in events like this one (or events like the school musical, the school band concert, and so forth), the obstacles are huge.
Not because anyone would deny our kids access, or because or kids aren't capable of inclusion, or because of overt pressure. But because neither we, nor our kids, are included in when the word goes around "it's time to audition," or "the first science fair meeting is this Friday in the gym," or "it's time to sign up for the Pep Squad." Those of us who are out of loop are... out of the loop. And the longer we remain on the sidelines, the more it's assumed that we like it there.
What's the answer? From what I can see, the onus is on us, the special needs moms and dads, to be sure the memo is delivered direct to our door. It's our job to check the school calendar, ask around at the PTA meeting, and doublecheck our kids' backpacks. It's up to us to determine which opportunities are right for our kids, and to get our kids any special help they need to be fully included and successful.
Why take on yet another set of tasks? I can only say that they outcomes are well worth the effort. Take a look at the video of Tom presenting his science fair project, and you'll see why!