Inclusivity in Education: Cooperative Learning with Special Education

Students sitting in a classroom.
“classroom.” Source: Lead Beyond. Creative Commons.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that “separate” educational facilities are inherently unequal. While Brown v. Board was aimed at addressing racial segregation, it is worth noting the implications of this view of separate educations because students with learning disabilities are often educated separately from their peers.  Our current education system divides students into different categories and programs based on their perceived levels of academic ability under the assumption that this is the best way to help students reach their fullest potential.  This is problematic and leads to students’ missing the benefits of an inclusive classroom.  Though it would not be a simple task, students who have learning disabilities should be educated alongside students who do not, using cooperative classwork, where students work together to complete an assignment or task, whenever possible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” For this blog, I will be focusing on learning disabilities, particularly those that do not completely inhibit functions that are vital in a traditional classroom, such as communication. However, I do recognize that the line that I am drawing between which disabilities/experiences of disabilities my proposal would apply to and those it would not is not completely clear, as no two people with the same disability have the same experience. The degree to which a person is able to participate in inclusive and cooperative learning would have to be determined on a case by case basis.

Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has a right to an education.  Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that all people with disabilities have the right to “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.”  The use of cooperative classwork among students with and without disabilities would hopefully help more effectively access these rights for both parties.  Additionally, by helping the members of each group become more accustomed to interacting and being part of a common social group, this can also help individuals with the types of disabilities that are focused on in this blog to access their right to employment (which is given in article 23 of the UDHR and article 27 of the CRPD) and their right to participation/inclusion in their communities (article 27 of the UDHR and article 19 of the CRPD).

Our Current System

When discussing whether students who have disabilities should be educated separately from students who do not, it is helpful if we begin by considering why we use the system we currently have.  A literature review titled “Implicit Assumptions in Special Education Policy: Promoting Full Inclusion for Students with Learning Disabilities” was published by Moira Kirby in the Child Youth Care Forum in 2016.  In the review, Kirby aimed to find special education trends relating to “inclusive practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), and student achievement.”  She argues that the educational system currently used in the United States, while meant to increase access to education, perpetuates certain students’ isolation from others, as it is based on problematic assumptions about disabilities.  The first assumption is that disabilities are deviant conditions that should be “eradicated.”  The second is that “all special services should be delivered in a separate environment.”  These assumptions inform the implicit biases about degrees of educational ability.  Kirby also argues that these assumptions must be changed in order to “promote access and equality for students with learning disabilities.”   In her article, she states, “The question is not, how can we fix a disability, but how can we make our classroom environments a place where all students can learn, regardless of their need.”

The educational system that is currently in place in the US involves separating students with learning disabilities, “low-performing” students, students who meet “average” expectations, and “high-performing” students.  This system is well-intentioned, theoretically giving each group of students the unique resources they need to reach the height of their personal capabilities.  In practice, however, this system is quite flawed.  It is a system based on expectations (typically informed by assumptions and implicit bias), which become harmful to many students, especially those with learning disabilities, due to stereotype threat.  Stereotype threat is “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” and the effect that that risk can have on the individual’s performance.  Many people assume that students with disabilities will do poorly in school, and when students with disabilities know this, they often adopt those same expectations for themselves.  If academic success seems unlikely or even impossible, this can become a barrier to the motivation and access to resources that can lead to it.  Stereotype threat also leads students with learning disabilities to underestimate the quality of their academic performance overall, even at times when they are doing well.  They can start to assume that they simply cannot do well in school.

This sort of negative self-evaluation can also be damaging to a person’s mental health and well-being.  If one consistently sees themselves as not good enough, smart enough, or strong enough to do things well, it can be easy for them to fall into depression, anxiety, or another struggle with mental health.

Another problem that comes with stereotype threat is that it takes up precious cognitive resources.  Students spend part of their cognitive resources thinking about the expectations they are held to, distracting them from the work they are trying to do, and preventing them from using all of their resources to their advantage, which contributes to a decreased ability to perform well.

In her research, Kirby found that teachers who had been asked about inclusion in the classroom tended to attribute the success of attempts at inclusion to the students’ physiological traits rather than the value of inclusive practices.  She points to this belief as one that could potentially lead a teacher to believe that students with disabilities could be taught only separately from others.  They were also often found to lack confidence in their abilities to teach students with disabilities.  Parents also either had negative or neutral views on the impact of inclusive education.

In 2015, “68.2% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in the general education classroom, while 24.1% spend 40-70% of their day in the general education classroom.”  This in no way aligns with the idea that students with learning disabilities need to be educated separately from other students, and it highlights a point of concern.  If many general education teachers do not feel like they are able to teach students with disabilities, and most students with disabilities spend a large part of their day in general education classrooms, what implications do these things have regarding those students’ education?  Ideally, students would be educated by someone who felt they were qualified to teach them rather than someone who is uncertain about it.  If students with different educational needs were consistently taught in the same classroom, teachers would all need to go through the training necessary to teach students with special educational needs, allowing them to better support their students.

Students listening to teachers in a classroom.
“Classroom.” Source: PAL LTER, Creative Commons.
An Inclusive Educational Environment Can Be Beneficial For All Students

The negative impact that a segregated educational system can have on students with disabilities is not the only reason to move towards a more inclusive system.  Evidence that suggests that inclusive classrooms can lead to positive outcomes for all of the students involved.

In their article “The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs,” Ed Baines, Peter Blatchford, and Rob Webster review the results of two research projects: the SPRing (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) project and the MAST (Making a Statement) project.  Realizing that most studies regarding collaborative work in education that had previously been performed had been on a small-scale and short-term basis, the authors reviewed the results of these two projects to come to a better, more reliable understanding of the challenges of inclusive group-work in primary schools.

The SPRing project was a five-year-long project that aimed to “develop and implement with teachers a programme of principles and activities that incorporated group work  into curriculum and everyday school activities” and “to evaluate this programme relative to a control group in terms of academic progress, behavioral interaction and dialogue, and attitudes and motivation towards learning.”  The developed program included a handbook and six training sessions where teachers could develop the skills that they need to incorporate group work into their lessons.  The four main areas covered by the program included “preparing the classroom and group context for group work,” “preparing lessons and group-work activities,” “preparing adults to support pupils and groups,” and “preparing pupils for group work.”

The results of the SPRing project show that, relative to the control group, the students that participated in the program made more progress in general science tests, “were more actively engaged in task interactions,” had more sustained interactions, and “engaged in more high-level reasoning talk.”

The MAST project “involved systematic observation and case studies” of students with known special educational needs that were being taught in general education classrooms. This project’s results provided Baines and his co-authors with information about the interactions between students with special educational needs and adults/peers.  The project found that students with special educational needs “were half as likely to work with or alongside peers” as other students.  It was also found they were often isolated from the other students.  Some of the reasons for this isolation included a student with special educational needs choosing to sit away from the others, and other students being afraid of or nervous about working with them.  One factor that may contribute to each of these reasons could be that the students with special educational needs that were a part of the study may have had poor social and communicational skills.  While difficulties with communication are an aspect of many learning disabilities, inclusive group work may give these students an opportunity and a safe environment in which they can develop these skills (though a student should never be pushed to do group work if it causes them an amount of stress that is genuinely detrimental to their well-being).

This isolation of students with special educational needs may also result from traditional students and school faculty viewing people with disabilities as “the other” as being outside of normal.  This would help to explain why traditional students may be hesitant to associate with students who have disabilities.  It could also explain why students with special educational needs isolate themselves from other students, as they may have internalized their peers’ view of them.  They may feel like they are on the outside looking in, unable to be a part of the rest of the group.

In her literature review, Moira Kirby also addresses some of the benefits of inclusive educational settings, as suggested in different case studies.  In one study, elementary school students scored higher in reading and writing when taught in a general education classroom rather than a separate special education classroom.  Another study found that eighth-graders with learning disabilities had “significantly higher scores in math academic achievement tasks and self-concept” when taught in an inclusive classroom. Students from another study scored higher in math, science, social studies, and language arts.

Students without learning disabilities may also benefit from inclusive educational environments.  Students who perform well could potentially benefit from working with students with disabilities and helping them understand the topics they are learning about and the group work they might do.  Re-wording and explaining a concept to another person can

help cement one’s understanding of it.  Additionally, if all teachers have to teach classes with children with different educational needs, they would have to be prepared to work with students with disabilities, which would improve the support that those students receive and broaden teachers’ perspectives.  This could allow teachers to develop skills that would be beneficial in teaching all students, with or without disabilities.

 Concerns and Challenges

Though there are many advantages to adopting a more inclusive educational system, there are still concerns and challenges that also come with it.  One concern is that students with learning disabilities may face social rejection from their peers.   For their article “The Social and Emotional Situation of First Graders with Classroom Behavior Problems and Classroom Learning Difficulties in Inclusive Classes,” Johanna Krull, Jürgen Wilbert, and Thomas Hennemann surveyed 2,839 first graders and found that students with “classroom learning difficulties” (CLD) and “classroom behavioral problems” (CBP) were at a greater risk for social rejection than their peers.  However, the authors found several outliers in their data, where students with CLD or CBP had higher rates of social acceptance, and they interpret this to mean that, under the right circumstances, an inclusive education system is possible.  In their article, Baines and his co-authors suggest that social rejection in this context can decrease over time when students are involved in inclusive group-work (if the students remain in the same groups throughout that time). Group work allows students with disabilities who struggle with social skills to develop those skills. It will enable other students to better understand people’s experiences who are different from them, which may lead them to be more willing (and happier) to be inclusive and build friendships with other students.  If a student has no/little prior experience with students with learning disabilities, it would not be surprising to find that they are nervous or uncomfortable interacting with them.

When discussing the possibility of an integrated classroom, people are also concerned with the impact of having children with severe behavioral issues in general education classrooms, as they may become distracting or disruptive to the point of preventing any productivity in the class. This may be a factor that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children that are deemed as being too disruptive have the potential to become less disruptive with exposure to a traditional classroom setting.  There are likely situations where students truly are too disruptive to allow for a productive classroom, but that is certainly not always the case.  It is important that, if a student is found to behave in a distracting way, that they are not immediately moved into another classroom after a single incident (although consideration should be given to the severity and the nature of the interruption). They should be given the opportunity to try and adjust to the traditional classroom environment before they are placed in a different one.

Another concern is that educating students at such a range of degrees of ability in the same classroom might prevent both students with learning disabilities and students that are currently in advanced programs from reaching their fullest academic potential. This concern is largely connected to the assumption that being in the classroom means that students would all be learning from the exact same curriculum, but that is not necessarily true.

In her article, Kirby suggests that a completely inclusive classroom might not involve basing lesson plans on the categories that students have been assigned to.  Instead, each student would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In our current public education system, children in special education programs must have an IEP, a “map that lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school.” Each child has an IEP team, including their parents, at least one general education teacher (unless the child does not work with any), at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, a school psychologist/specialist, and the child.  After the IEP is developed, the team regularly meets to discuss progress and possible changes for the plan.  If every student, whether they have general or special educational needs, has an IEP, then (in theory), each student could have their personal needs recognized and met in the classroom.  Kirby also suggests that making IEPs standard for all students could reduce the impact that the stigmatization of learning disabilities has on students, as school faculty would be less reliant on separating students into different/broad categories to teach them.

Of course, creating an IEP for every student in the public school system is much easier said than done and is a much more attractive idea in theory than in practice.  It would require a significant shift in the allocation of resources in education, which may not be practical with the financial resources we currently have access to.  It would also be asking many teachers, as they would no longer be able to teach with a singular lesson plan. It is unrealistic to expect teachers to carry this burden themselves, as they are already spread too thin, given more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle.  Having IEPs for every student would likely require a serious increase in the number of teachers at each school or at least an increased/reinforced support system for school faculty. Perhaps a more feasible solution could be developing IEPs for students with a clear need for increased educational support that involves their being more present in the traditional classroom than in a separate one.  While this is still likely to feed into the stigmatization and othering of students with disabilities, there do not seem to be any strong alternatives that are both practical and successful in avoiding stigmatization altogether.

Conclusion

In short, we should aim to educate students with and without learning disabilities together whenever possible, even though it will take a lot of time and effort to do so.  We currently separate students based on expectations of their academic abilities, and these expectations are informed by and reaffirm problematic assumptions about people with learning disabilities.  This can be harmful to people with learning disabilities and prevent students with all degrees of educational needs from accessing the benefits that can come from an inclusive classroom.  However, it is important  that we recognize and genuinely consider the concerns and challenges that arise when we look to put inclusive education ideals into practice.  It is also important to recognize that the conclusions that can be drawn based on the resources used to support this argument are limited, as many gather data from anecdotal situations and small samples sizes.  These factors prevent the results of sources from being reliably representative of experiences with inclusion and students with learning disabilities on a larger scale.  The application of my argument is also limited, as I have focused on students with learning disabilities that do not completely prevent them from effectively learning or functioning in a general education classroom.  While an integrated school system is generally optimal, there are some students for which that kind of system genuinely would not work.  We cannot treat all students with disabilities as if their experiences are the same by assuming that all would do poorly in an inclusive classroom or that all would be unquestionably better off in an inclusive classroom.  Overall, even though it will not be easy, even if we can never achieve a perfectly integrated educational system, it is an important goal which we should work towards for the benefit of all students and their educational rights.

Fires and COVID-19 Race Through Lesvos Migrant Camp

We are asking for the European community to help. Why are they not listening to us? Where are the human rights? We took refuge in the European Union but where are they? There are no toilets, no showers, no water. Nothing. Not any security or safety. We die here every day.”

Devastation in Moria

On the night of September 8th, 2020, fires raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp in Moria, Lesvos in Greece. It is home to more than 13,000 people which is 6x its capacity. Recently, Moria has caused deep political divisions and unrest in Europe over Mediterranean migration. Moria serves a direct transit point for hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from Afghanistan and Syria with the European Union. After Europe started closing its borders and putting a quota on the number of immigrants 4 years ago, life in Moria began to be plagued by mental and physical health issues and desperation. What was originally a temporary camp, became the home of deplorable conditions for people who were running from another deplorable environment.

On the night of the fires, thousands of Moria residents were displaced and are currently being refused entry into Europe, being refused basic rights to shelter and safety, being refused access to proper shelter and sanitation, and being refused their human rights. Since fleeing the fires, the refugees have resorted to sleeping on fields and the sides of roads. Thousands of migrants are now demanding more permanent housing because their situation is so out of the norm and they just want to feel safe in one environment, but their cries for help are continuing to go unheard. The Greek government has taken positive steps to build a more permanent migrant camp, but this leaves little to no hope for refugees seeking a better life outside of Lesvos.

This picture shows the a part of the residential area of the Moria camp where proper housing is severely limited and lacking along with our necessities. Source: Marianna Karakoukali

While accounts of how the fires started are currently being investigated the Greek government is claiming to have identified the culprits. Rumors of how the fires started are illustrative of ethnic and political tensions on Lesvos. The refugee migrants are tired of their poor living circumstances and the local population is upset with lack of regional, national, and international support for managing the influx of migrants and refugees on the island. While a second civil rights movement is happening not only in the United States, but all around the world, racial and ethnic tensions are high. Many refugees feel the European Union is turning its back on them. The European Union is becoming less tolerant for migrants and refugees, when it had once promised to help.

So how is COVID-19 affecting Moria?

Earlier this year, Greece went into lockdown and put travel restrictions on tourists coming in and residents going out. At the beginning of September, there was a small outbreak among the residents at the Moria camp, and human rights advocates are concerned that the Greek government is using this outbreak as an opportunity to further constrain the lives and freedoms of the migrants. The Greek minister for migration; Mitarchi, released a statement saying that the outbreak suggests need for a more “closed and controlled” environment for the migrants. This is odd considering that Moria has experienced far fewer cases than the rest of Greece, but the restrictions placed over the lives in Moria were much higher in comparison. In the Spring, the United Nations was so overwhelmed and concerned with livelihood and the living conditions at Moria that they called to expedite the migration process and related paperwork. So along with the day to day living conditions at Moria, COVID-19 and readily available access to healthcare is making life harder for the migrants. The fires may have been set in retaliation against the newer COVID-19 restrictions by the migrants or they might’ve been set by the local residents who fear the spread of COVID from the camp.

What is going on now?

In the meantime, while the Greek government is talking to French and Italian national leaders, riot police have been deployed to both the site where fires have been set, and also to the new refugee camp that is being set up to shelter those abandoned in Moria. This new site is at Kara Tepe where local media has identified helicopters that have been transporting tents and other necessities for the residents. In the fires, refugee documentation and belongings have been lost and burned, so it is still being determined how accessible the new site at Kara Tepe will be. Many refugees are now saying that they will not go back to another refugee camp where proper living conditions are not guaranteed, but the Greek government is saying that it will “not be blackmailed.”

Refugees sleep on side of the road following the fires, while they await further government housing and instructions. Source: Tasnim News Agency

What can you do to help?

Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust 

Alexandra Zapruder answering questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 7, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Alexandra Zapruder, author and member of the founding staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.  She discussed her first book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, and answered questions about her work.  Throughout her lecture, Zapruder highlighted the variety of insights we can gain from the diaries of teenagers/young adults who experienced the Holocaust.   

While Anne Frank is certainly the most well-known authors of such a diary, there is much to be learned from the other young authors whose diaries have been found in the last few decades.  Zapruder described these diaries as being both historical and literary fragments, giving us a window into the past and helping us better understand human experiences from different perspectives of the time.  

Zapruder described having to grapple with the legacy of Anne Frank’s diary and how it shapes the reception of the other diaries that are found.  For example, people often associated Frank’s writing with a hopeful view of humanity.  It is often discussed with language that relates to redemption and optimism that is rarely used when discussing the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust on their own.  This does not, however, reflect every young writer’s writing during this time.  Zapruder noted that, no matter how great a writer is, it does not make sense to expect their writing to represent all perspectives in a common experience when people are so different.  Reading other diaries from the Holocaust requires setting aside the preconceived notions we have from learning about Anne Frank’s diary in the past. 

One young writer that Zapruder spoke about during her lecture was Klaus Langer, a child of a fairly well-to-do family in Essen, Germany.  She read an entry from his diary that was written on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht.  His diary entries were generally records of what happened in his day-to-day life as he and his family made efforts to leave Nazi Germany, and this entry was no different.  Langer described walking down the street through the wreckage after everything that happened, walking on glass splinters.  Though that day in history had not been named “Kristallnacht” yet, the significance of the shatter glass is clear in his writing.  When reading this entry, Zapruder recognized that, when you are writing in a diary about the day-to-day, you capture nuances you might miss later, things that would be easy to forget in future recollections. 

Another writer that Zapruder discussed was Elsa Binder, a 21-year-old girl who lived with her parents in Poland.  Zapruder described Binder as someone who could be sarcastic and had an edge.  In Binder’s diary, Zapruder found a strong example of an unexpected common theme among the diaries: the passage of time.  There were certainly themes that had been expected, such as desperation, hope, hunger, and displacement, but the passage of time was addressed to a surprising degree in nearly all of the diaries.  Zapruder found many entries detailing life before the war, the traumatic break from normal life, and waiting liberation as time passed.  Birthdays and holidays were noted regularly, even when the world was in chaos. 

Perhaps the most striking thing that Zapruder addressed during her lecture was the way that these works resonate with young people.  Though the experiences of most American teenagers are far different from those who lived during the Holocaust, many of the things that young people experience today connect to the themes found in the diary, from hope for the future to fear to desperation.  Children face many human rights issues, such as school shootings, gun violence, and violence against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.  Like many of the young writers that Zapruder discussed during her lecture, many of the children of today are desperate for a better future.  It is vital that adults step up and become better advocates for that future and for the human rights of children and adolescents.   

If you want to learn more about children’s rights and related issues in the United States you can checkout Children’s RightsThe Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Human Rights Campaign. 

Family Fire: A Gun Safety Issue

A child holding a gun
Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons

Last week, a 2-year old boy accidentally shot himself in his home in southwest Birmingham. Fortunately, he survived the gunshot wound and is being treated at the Children’s of Alabama hospital. The police are not sure how he obtained the gun yet, but the investigation is ongoing. Last month, a case of a two-year old boy in Indiana was reported who lost his life after finding his mother’s unsecured gun in their home and accidentally shot himself. A few months ago, a 12-year boy in Mississippi accidentally shot and killed his sister of the same age while playing with a gun. There are numerous other cases like these when children get access to unsecured firearms and end up in such horrific circumstances. These accidental shootings are defined by the term “family fire.”

Family fire is a shooting that involves improperly stored or misused gun(s) found in the home, resulting in injury or death, including unintentional shooting, suicide, and other gun-related tragedies. Family fire is a constant threat for all members of the household where firearms are not properly stored. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that the prevalence of guns AND unsafe storage practices are associated with higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths. It was also found that youth killed in these gun accidents are shot by other youth in most cases, usually someone of their own age and typically a family member or friend.

Every day, family fire injures or kills eight children in America. According to a report from the New York Academy of Medicine, children under the age of 18 suffer the most from in-home gun-related incidents. For suicides and unintentional deaths, the gun used almost always comes from the child’s home, resulting directly from improperly stored firearms and the lack of proper precautions. Over 4.6 million children in the United States live with unlocked or loaded guns in their homes.

A large body of evidence has shown that the presence of guns in a child’s home substantially increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death, though recent data suggests that not a lot of gun owners appreciate this risk. Parents and other adults who own guns tend to greatly underestimate the possibility of children being able to access those arms. It has been found that 75 percent of kids know where that gun is stored in their home. A report on “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms” revealed another shocking fact that one in five kids had handled a gun in the absence of their parents. Not only that, children’s exposure to unsafely stored firearms can also have consequences beyond the home. It has been found that 75 percent of school shootings are facilitated by kids having access to unsecured and/or unsupervised guns at home.

Considering the seriousness of these statistics and the deadly consequences of unsafe access to guns, Brady launched a “End Family Fire” campaign. Through this initiative, they strive to promote the use of the term “family fire” in order to raise awareness of this nationwide crisis and drive social change by educating and encouraging gun owners about safe gun storage. Their belief is that family fire can be ended with joint community action and public awareness and that lives can be saved through promoting safe storage practices.

Ad Council, America’s leading producer of public service communications, partnered with EndFamilyFire.org to bring attention to this pressing issue and to encourage people to learn more about proper gun safety and responsible ownership.

Research data from the New York Academy of Medicine shows that:

“The risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injury is lower in homes that store firearms unloaded (compared with loaded) and locked (compared with unlocked). In keeping with this evidence, guidelines intended to reduce firearm injury to children, first issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1992, assert that whereas the safest home for a child is one without firearms, risk can be reduced substantially, although not eliminated, by storing all household firearms locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition.”

There is a lot of conversation around gun violence and gun rights in America. Much of this debate is focused on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet, what we need to understand is that this is more than a conversation about gun rights, gun violence, and whether or not people should have the right to bear arms. I’m sure that we can all agree on the importance of preventing our kids from the risks and deadly consequences of having easy access to firearms. Those on all sides of the Second Amendment debate and gun owners and non-gun owners need to come together to promote safe practices and prevent unfortunate incidents like family fire from occurring.

The first and foremost step is to safely store the firearm(s). It has been found that keeping guns locked and unloaded reduces the risk of family fire by 73%. Additionally, storing ammunition separately from its gun reduces the risk of family fire up to 61%. Keep them out of the reach of others, especially children, who can use them to dangerous outcomes. The State of New Jersey has required sellers to provide trigger locks or locked gun cases with each gun purchase, among other laws this has contributed in a decline of unintentional gun death cases in the state. It is another way to promote safe gun storage and making sure that people have the necessary equipment to do so.

Another way is to encourage discussions around responsible gun ownership and safe storage practices within our social circle, family, friends, and colleagues. The most important thing to do is to have a conversation with your kids. Make sure that they understand their limits on accessing firearms, do not consider it a toy, and understand the severity of consequences that may arise as a result. Discussing gun safety and making it a part of the family’s safety conversation is important, especially for gun owners because they play a powerful role in educating others about safe storage practices. Additionally, we need to begin asking others about the presence of unsecured guns in the home for their own safety, before moving in with someone, and before sending your kids to anybody’s home.

Family fire is a pressing issue affecting many families everyday in the country. We as a society need to take up the responsibility of addressing this problem, encouraging the lawmakers and security agencies to take notice and action, and play our part by both promoting and practicing safe gun storage practices.

Cupcake and the State of Missing Children in the U.S.

Kamille Cupcake McKinney. Source: AMBER ALERT, Creative Commons.

It breaks my heart to write about the tragedy of the three-year-old little girl Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, fondly known as Cupcake, who was abducted from a birthday party about two weeks ago here in Birmingham, Alabama. AMBER alerts were issued across Alabama and extended into neighboring states in an effort to locate her. The Birmingham police department had been updating the public on the efforts, but unfortunately a day after Mayor Randall Woodfin pleaded with the public to help find her, the remains of the little angel were found in a dumpster at a landfill in Birmingham. This is indeed a sad moment for not only the family of Cupcake and the city of Birmingham, but also for humanity as a whole. We as a society have failed the little angel, and she is indeed in a better place than this cruel world. My heart goes out to her family as this is an irreparable loss for them that cannot be made up with any amount of sympathy. We hope they are able to find solace and healing with time.

Mayor Woodfin held a vigil for “Cupcake” outside of Birmingham City Hall, where hundreds of people gathered to honor her. They expressed sorrow and solidarity for the innocent soul “whose disappearance gripped the Birmingham area for 10 days and whose death shook the city to its core.” Birmingham police department, City Council, community activists, faith-based leaders and the general public stood with heavy hearts and teary eyes to pay tribute to baby Kamille. This was one of the many vigils held in the city after the devastating news of her death, including the spot where she was last seen in Tom Brown village. Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith expressed his grief over the incident and how his department endlessly worked in hopes of bringing the child safely back home. He had some powerful words to say:

“I believe Kamille changed this city. A 3-year-old little girl has changed the landscape of the city of Birmingham. She made us stop and check ourselves. Check ourselves to see if we’re doing everything we can to keep our children safe from harm. Check ourselves to see if we’re truly the village that we promise to be. Check ourselves to see if we’re living up to the expectations of tomorrow and watching over our children today.”

This incident has called for a reflection of ourselves and of our community. It has made us question the safety of our own children because little Cupcake was one of us. We need to evaluate if we really are the village that we strive to be or are we too segmented and disconnected as a community and a society? It makes us question how safe our neighborhoods and cities are? Do we assume that someone will always be there to step in and stop it? Are there any truly safe spaces? The answers are to be found.

To this date, two persons of interest have been charged with kidnapping and murder in relation to Kamille’s disappearance. A similar case surfaced in South Carolina when the body of a 5-year-old girl Nevaeh Adams, who was missing since August, was also found dumped in a landfill within 24 hours of this tragedy.

Missing children is a bigger crisis in the U.S. than most people think, and unfortunately Cupcake was one of many. A child goes missing every 40 seconds here in the United States. Last year alone, more than 400,000 reports of missing children were made to law enforcement in the US, out of which almost 15,000 were kidnapped. The most commonly abducted group was of female children aged 12-17.

It is notable to consider the amount of coverage Cupcake was able to get and the reward amounts offered for her retrieval. Unfortunately, this kind of effort is not always the case for missing children, especially for those of color. A study by Ohio State University found that missing African American children are in fact underrepresented in news media making it difficult to spread the word about them and to retrieve them. This itself is a violation of the Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. The Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit striving to bring awareness to the missing persons of color, issued a report suggesting that one reason for the under-representation of missing minority people is the widespread belief that such people live in impoverished conditions with crime being a regular part of their lives. This mindset contributes to the factor of racial consideration in the coverage and efforts of finding missing persons.

Cases of people who go missing generally involve multiple abuses of human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures the rights to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5). In a lot of cases, the right to life is also violated as in that of Cupcake and Nevaeh Adams. Additionally, the families of victims may face violation of human rights as well, such as the right to a family life. In case of the absence of official investigations, the families and survivors of the victims face the violation of their right to due process, to recognition of a person before the law, and even to the prohibition of torture. It is important to consider it as a human rights issue and the various ways in which the fundamental rights of the missing persons and their families are abused.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure a safe environment for all its citizens and the community members to play their part in keeping it safe. In case of such unfortunate circumstances, the community seems to be limited to the aftermath and post-incident action. The states are under a legal obligation to conduct effective investigations for all missing persons and to guarantee that all abuses be officially investigated irrespective of the fact that whether or not those abuses are considered attributable to actions by the victim. International Humanitarian Law also obligates the search of the missing and complements the universal guarantees provided by human rights.

There are various reasons that a child can go missing. When children are kidnapped by strangers, it is often due to pedophilic motives and for sexual exploitation. Some kidnappings are also motivated by monetary reasons such as human trafficking, sex-trafficking, forced child labor, illegal adoption, or for ransom. These are generally well-organized illegal networks run nationally and internationally and are always on the lookout for potential target-children. A few rare cases also involve serious mental conditions or revengeful motives used for kidnapping, abducting, and hurting children. Parental abductions and runaways also constitute a large number of missing children, but the focus of this article are the abductions by strangers.

Now the question arises: What can we do on our part to prevent such unfortunate circumstances and to keep our children safe from predators in addition to actions taken by the authorities?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most of these incidents happen when children tend to wander off without realizing the danger. Parents and guardians need to take necessary precautions to help keep their children safe by being more vigilant of their surroundings and ensuring a check on children. Some kids can be more curious, mischievous, and vulnerable than others. Parents need to ensure trustable adult supervision at all times, especially in crowded public places. While choosing daycares, schools, or camps for children, make sure that there are ample security measures and policies in place for kids’ safety. Adults also need to be very careful while hiring babysitters and should get necessary background checks and recommendations before letting someone be alone with their child. Additionally, children need to be educated and trained for potential crisis situations and ways to seek help. Train them to be mindful of strangers, encourage them to share any unusual happenings, and teach them about the resources and necessary actions when encountering an unusual situation. For children with special needs, parents and guardians should take extra precautions and make necessary arrangements for the safety of their children, as they might be more vulnerable than others.

Lastly, all of us need to stay alert of our surroundings and take active responsibility for helping authorities in our communities when AMBER alerts are issued for such cases. We can look out for people, vehicles, victims, or criminals as specified in the issued alert. We can help spread the word by sharing the information with others and volunteer to distribute posters of missing children. For specific cases, community members can conduct organized searches to help the police forces look for missing children. We should stay aware of our surroundings, report suspicious activities and people, safely intervene and help in situations to the best of our abilities, and know the community resources for taking appropriate action.

A number of resources are available for parents facing such an unfortunate situation of a missing child. In such an emergency, contact your local FBI field office or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on 1-800-THE-LOST. The AMBER Alert program has also been credited with the safe recovery of 957 children to date and is a great way to get the word out in order to mobilize communities for the lookout. Parents are also encouraged to keep child safety kits which include all the necessary information like IDs, recent photos, physical characteristics, fingerprints, and other information about the child. These should always be kept intact to be used in potential emergency situations to assist the authorities in taking appropriate and immediate action.

We as a society need to re-evaluate ourselves, our values, commitments, priorities, actions, and safety in the light of these staggering realities and horrific instances. Little baby Cupcake will not come back to her family, but a lot of other children can find their ways back home through the joint efforts of authorities and community members. We all have to work together to make our communities safer for our precious children, who are the future of this world.

Young Activists and the Burden of Change

Two girls smiling and holding up peace signs.
Children. Source: Shazron, Creative Commons

What would you do if you felt like the whole world was on your shoulders before you were even old enough to vote?  Many children have faced this exact question, some of which have been acknowledged for their extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place.  Malala Yousafzai.  Greta Thunberg.  Emma González and David Hogg.  These are only few from a long list of young activists who have made great sacrifices in hopes of creating a better future for themselves and future generations. 

For many, seeing children give up so much for something they are passionate about is greatly motivating.  Children’s willingness to put themselves at risk for the greater good often make adults feel like they should be doing more to make a difference or that they have been underestimating the problem the entire time. 

That being said, why should children have to make sacrifices in order to convince adults to change?  Should the burden of change ever be placed on a child’s shoulders? 

Why do they feel the need to get involved? 

When discussing this issue, it is important that we consider what is causing so many young people to feel the need to take on the serious responsibilities that come with activism.  It may speak to the severity of an issue when the members of society with the least responsibilities for the problems we face are the ones leading the charge for progress or, possibly, because they are the ones dealing the brunt of the impact of change. 

Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old environmental activist, skips school on Fridays in order to protest outside Swedish parliament buildings, pressuring the government to pass legislation that would reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. These efforts interfere with her right to an education which is recognized in Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child).  When asked about her message for world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit, said, “You are failing us.  But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.  The eyes of all future generations are upon you.  And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.  We will not let you get away with this.  Right here, right now is where we draw the line.  The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not. 

Personal Connections to the Issue 

For many child activists, their membership in a community that is particularly or uniquely impacted by an issue contributes to their involvement whether it is by participation or choice.  Consider the activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Their activism began as a response to their experiences as survivors of a school shooting.  Many of the activists have attributed much of their drive for promoting gun-reform to their feeling that adults are not doing enough (or are even making the problem worse).  Cameron Kasky, an 11th grader at the school, said, “The adults know that we are cleaning up their mess.”  Emma González added onto this, stating, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I made this mess,’ while continuing to spill soda on the floor.” 

In other cases, children carrying the burden of change are from marginalized groups who are disproportionately impacted by a given issue.  Malala Yousafzai grew up in Pakistan, where her father was a teacher who ran a school for girls.  In 2008, the Taliban overtook the town she lived in and put many harsh restrictions in place, one of which was declaring that girls could no longer attend school. Yousafzai spoke out against this and in support of girls’ right to an education (which is recognized as a right in Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).  In 2012, at the age of 16, Malala was shot in the head by a masked gunman in response to her activism.  She knew that speaking out was dangerous but took the risk, because she knew, firsthand, how girls are affected when refused their right to an education. 

Children should not have to lead the fights for their own rights and well-being, especially when it involves risking their lives. 

Greta Thunberg sitting in a chair and being interviewed.
Greta Thunberg at the Parliament. Source: European Parliament, Creative Commons

Harmful Responses 

One way in which heavy involvement in efforts for change has been harmful for children is the way people who disagree often begin to treat them.  While Ruby Bridges was not an activist at the time, she still faced serious backlash when she became the first African American to attend a school that had previously only enrolled white students.  Throughout her first year at her new school, there were mobs of people in front of the building every day protesting her attendance.  People were angrily pointing and shouting at her as she was escorted into school every day.  In an interview for NPR, she shared that some people would bring a baby-sized coffin with a black doll inside, and she would have to walk by it every day.  This frightened her so much it gave her nightmares.  She was simply a little girl going to school, but it was as if people stopped seeing her that way. 

With the rise of social media in recent years, children who are part of social change or activism are more aware of people’s responses to them than ever before.  Some adults, angered by the actions of these children for one reason or another, flock to websites like Twitter to air their grievances, seemingly without any consideration for how their words might impact the children involved.  As her work has become more well-known, Greta Thunberg has faced much cruelty from adults.  In August, Thunberg was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a high-tech racing yacht (to decrease her contributions to greenhouse emissions) to spread awareness of climate change.  Arron Banks, multimillionaire and co-founder of Leave.EU, tweeted her picture with the caption, “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…”.  Others have mocked her for having Asperger’s syndrome or for displaying its symptoms.   

The long-term negative impact that internalizing these kinds of harsh words and actions can have pose a threat to a child’s mental health.  Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all people have the right to live in an environment that supports their health and well-being. 

What Do We Do? 

How do we deal with this issue?  It is not so simple as to say that kids should be kept out of political conversations altogether.  Many children live with certain aspects of their lives that require political conversations.  If a child’s parents are a same-sex couple, the parents need to be able to talk to their child about the way some people treat the LGBTQ+ community.  This conversation cannot be had without at least some political themes.  People of color need to be able to talk to their children about certain topics which are considered political in order help keep them safe. 

These conversations should not be limited to parents and children who are directly impacted by political issues.  Children with privilege should not be kept ignorant of these serious issues, as gaining knowledge about marginalized groups can help them develop empathy.  Additionally, children who are impacted by political issues should not be alone when having to face the difficulties of learning about these issues. 

It is also important to recognize that exposure to conversations about political issues at an early age can lead to increased political engagement as an adult.  Hearing their parents/guardians talk about different topics communicates to children (whether directly or indirectly) that these issues matter and have value.  Political discourse that highlights the importance of such issues can, therefore, teach children to value political engagement. 

One thing that we can do is spread awareness about how heavy participation in political activism can impact children, particularly their mental health.  We can hold ourselves and our peers accountable for the things we say online (or in-person), hopefully decreasing the amount of mocking and bullying that children experience through the actions of adults.  We can also respond to their cries for action by working toward progressive social change so that they do not have to do our job for us. 

The Refugee Education Crisis

Child writes in workbook at a desk.
Getting Syria’s children back to school in Lebanon. Source: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, Creative Commons.

Now more than ever, people are fleeing their home countries because of war, persecution, or violence, hoping to find a better life in a different country. In fact, we haven’t seen a refugee crisis this large since World War II: there are 70.8 million refugees worldwide, and estimates show that around 37 thousand people are forcibly displaced every day. They risk their lives to escape a situation they feel they won’t survive, but when these refugees finally find a place they feel safer in, they face new challenges, including the education of their children.

Children, in every society and culture, are the future; they will grow up and have an impact on society. The significance of the impact and whether it’s positive or negative is greatly affected by the child’s education. If a child is refused an education, it will be hard for them to positively contribute to society. Additionally, a lack of education can prevent people from knowing their rights and being informed about their health.

For refugee children, education is even more important. In addition to the importance of education in general, education can give a child back their sense of identity and purpose after being stripped away from everything they know. Often, refugee children are taken to a country that is much different from their native country, especially with regards to culture and language. However, receiving an education can lessen the growing pains, especially if teachers are trained to help children from different cultures and speak different languages. Additionally, going to school can help children learn the intricacies of the new culture by being exposed to it for extended periods of time.

While it may seem obvious that education is important for every child, the education gap between refugee and nondisplaced children continues to grow. Worldwide, 91 percent of children attend primary school, but only 63 percent of refugee children attend primary school. While the number drops for secondary school across the board, the decline is much more dramatic for refugee children: only 24 percent of refugee children will attend secondary school. This is alarming because secondary school is typically the minimum level of education needed to attain a desirable job. The vast majority of these children, who are already put at a disadvantage, have even less of a chance of receiving the education they need.

Worldwide, there are many reasons refugee children are not receiving a quality education. First of all, the language in their new country may be different from any language they speak, which could cause them to fall behind in their studies. Second of all, there may be discrimination and bullying, which can make it much harder to focus on and excel at their studies. Additionally, in some areas, there may be limited spots in secondary schools for refugees, limiting the number of refugees that can receive an education. Finally, many refugees are denied the right to attend school, as many governments have policies in place that block their enrollment. These policies can include the requirement of residency documentation, which is nearly impossible to attain, essentially making their enrollment in school impossible.

In the US, there are two laws in place that are meant to protect children’s education: the Flores Settlement and Plyler v. Doe. The Flores Settlement outlines the regulations and restrictions regarding detaining minors, including refugees, at the border. It ensures proper treatment within detainment centers and includes a section specifically regarding education. Children are required to receive an individualized educational plan including basic education and lessons in English. However, in June, there were reports that the Trump administration decided to suspend many services in juvenile detainment camps, including education, because of a lack of resources. This act would’ve gone directly against the Flores Settlement.

Plyler v. Doe protects the rights of undocumented children to get a primary and secondary education, stating that they fall under the Equal Protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. Plyler v. Doe shows that in this country, every child has a right to an education. However, this right is not always granted. There are many schools that require birth certificates and ask about immigration statuses as a way to keep undocumented children out of school, even though it is illegal.

There are many benefits to the communities that accept refugees. Many of those against admitting refugees to Europe, the United States, or wherever they may live, cite the economic strain refugees put on the government as their reason for opposing the intake of refugees in their country. However, they are ignoring the fact that through taxes refugees generally boost the economy more than they strain it. This can only be improved by educating the children as well. The best way for someone to positively impact the economy is to be well educated; in a study done over 40 years comparing 50 countries’ economies and education levels, they found that the higher the average cognitive ability, the faster the gross domestic product (GDP) increased. If a country refuses to educate any of the children that live there—including refugees—it will not only negatively affect the children, but will also negatively affect the entire country. Additionally, schools that allow refugee children will have more diversity, which promotes higher levels of tolerance, not only among them, but also among parents and the community.

It is imperative for the development of the individual and the well-being of the host country that refugee children have the opportunity for an education. However, it is not enough to just give them access to an education. They must have the resources necessary for them to succeed, such as teachers that are willing to work with them through language barriers and accurate credit for courses taken in their native country, among others. They must be given the same opportunities that the other children in the country are given if they are to succeed and we are to close the gap in education between refugee and nondisplaced children. Many countries have already started making an effort to close the educational gap and take down barriers: Turkey has made significant efforts to prepare school-age refugee children for a transition to Turkish schools, and Ecuador has passed laws to give undocumented Venezuelan children easier access to school. There are many benefits to the education of refugee children and ignoring them will have grave consequences for refugees and the communities they are a part of.

Mindful Learning: Adding Meditation to Education

A girl sitting outside and meditating.
Girl Meditation. Source: Best Picko, Creative Commons

If you have ever struggled to fall asleep or dealt with significant anxiety or stress, you may have tried to calm down and relax yourself by listening to a guided meditation or yoga practice.  Data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 14.2 percent of American adult and 54. Child participants had practiced meditation in the previous 12 months.  The survey also found that 14.3 percent of adults and 8.4% of children had practiced yoga in the past year. Some schools have now seen the positive impact that meditation and yoga can have on children’s behavior and mental health and have decided to integrate these practices into their procedural structures.  Instead of sending children to detention or the principal’s office for traditional disciplinary methods, these schools have rooms designated for mindfulness and meditation.  This results in a complete shift in how both educators and students cope with behavioral issues and emotional struggles in the classroom. 

What Is Meditation? What Are the Benefits? 

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation is, “Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.”  While there is no single method or rigid guideline for how to meditate, there are four main elements that most meditation methods include: an environment with minimal distractions, a comfortable posture (such as sitting or lying down), a focus of attention, and an “open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).”  In this context, yoga combines meditation with specific physical postures and breathing techniques. 

While there is still much research to be done on meditation and its impact on people, studies thus far suggest that it can help reduce blood pressure, aid in coping with anxiety and depression, improve sleep, reduce pain, improve ability to focus, and much more.  There is also research that suggests practicing meditation could lead to physical changes in the brain which support numerous aspects of mental and physical health.  For example, one study that was performed in 2012 compared brain images of 50 adults that did not regularly meditate and 50 adults who had been doing so for years.  The results suggest that the brains of those who had been practicing meditation had undergone gyrification, which means the outer layer of their brains had more folds, potentially increasing their ability to process information.  Another study from 2013 suggests that regularly practicing meditation may slow, stall, or reverse certain changes in the brain that typically result from aging.   

It should be noted that every individual’s relationship with and response to meditation can differ.  One person may work well with a certain meditation strategy, while another person might find that strategy extremely difficult or uncomfortable.  Some people who suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety, may find that certain forms of meditation make them more anxious.  Some people may have physical limitations that prevent from sitting on the floor, which is a common posture for many meditative practices.  It is a very personal experience and should not be treated as one-size-fits-all. 

Children learning yoga outside.
Learning Yoga. Source: Amanda Hirsch, Creative Commons

How is Meditation Being Implemented in Schools? 

In 2013, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School of West Baltimore created the “Mindful Moment Room,” a space used for meditation and yoga.  This is where students are sent when they are being disruptive in class or aggressive with their classmates.  The space is warm and inviting, smelling of essential oils and decorated with pillows and yoga mats.  Here, students who are feeling angry or frustrated can have an opportunity to breathe and do activities like yoga and meditation to calm down.  The Holistic Life Foundation is the nonprofit that helped the school to establish and run the Mindful Moment Room.  The staff helps students talk about why they had to leave class and guides them through mindfulness exercises.  Mindfulness in not limited to being encouraged when students are misbehaving.  Students listen to a 15-minute guided meditation over the intercom at the beginning and end of every school day and can practice yoga both during and after school. 

Not only is this beneficial in helping kids work through problems at school, but it also helps them build skills that can help them to cope with strong negative emotions in the future.  The students themselves have been able to recognize the benefits they have experienced from practicing mindfulness.  Dacari Crawford, a third-grader at Robert W. Coleman, said, “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work and tune everyone out.  It gives you good confidence when you need to do something important.”  Inspired by the impact mindfulness practices have made on the elementary school, Patterson High School has started its own Mindful Moments Room. 

A Mother’s Testimony 

Dana Santas, a yoga trainer to many professional sports teams, was invited write an article for CNN discussing her experience of guiding her three children (the youngest of which being on the autism spectrum) through yoga.  In her experience she has found three main reasons why mindfulness-practices like yoga and meditation should be taught in school:   

The first is “teaching breathing as fundamental to well-being.”  She points out that the impact that breathing has on us is not as simple as the fact the we cannot live without breathing.  Our breathing patterns, our postures while breathing, and the way we breathe in general impacts both our mental and physical health in ways that are hard to notice if we do not know to look for them.  This be related to things like the basic mechanisms of breathing or using breathing to calm down when one is overwhelmed.  Santas developed a breathing exercise called “peace palm exhaling” to help her son with Asperger’s syndrome when he becomes overwhelmed.   

The second reason is that yoga can help children “move with control and confidence” because it can help them gain self-control and respect for their own bodies and improve their balance and movement abilities. 

The final reason she discusses is that yoga can promote the power of mindfulness, helping children to learn skills that they can use to cope with anxiety and stress. 

How Does Mindfulness Impact Human Rights? 

One significant impact that the use of meditation and mindfulness in schools has on human rights is that it helps to improves students’ ability to access and fully utilize their right to an education.  The right to an education is recognized in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Article 26 of the UDHR also recognizes the right of every person to an education that works towards the full development of their personality, and that right is also supported by meditative practices.  With fewer class disruptions, an improved ability to focus, and a calmer school-environment, students can spend more quality time learning and gaining knowledge that they can use in the future.  Practicing mindfulness also helps to create an environment that supports one’s health and well-being, which is recognized as a right in Article 25 of the UDHR and Article 24 of the CRC.  The impact that meditation and mindfulness can have on education and personal development can help a person better prepare for future experiences, helping them have better access not only to these rights, but also to their other rights as well. 

Dr. Robert Bullard: Health Equity through Environmental, Economic and Racial Justice

a photo of Robert Bullard speaking to a crowd
Dr. Robert Bullard. Photo by UAB IHR.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.

Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.

EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.

Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.

Accessibility and Education

 

Parking spot reserved for people with disabilities
Wheelchair Only. Source: JoshuaDavisPhotography, Creative Commons

For most people, the importance of the right to an education is not unknown.  It’s through education that people gain the skills that they need to be active in their communities, join the workforce, and live their daily lives.  While there is certainly division in regard to people’s ideas of exactly how systems of education should work, there continues to be a shared understanding that these systems should exist in some capacity.  The importance of the right to an education for people with disabilities is not well known or, at least, not as actively recognized, but it should be.

Background of Disability Rights and Education in the U.S.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) took effect as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975.  It was meant to improve the access that children with disabilities have to “a free appropriate public education” and an environment that supports, rather than impedes, that education.  Part of IDEA is a requirement that public schools develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability who is enrolled.  IEPs are created and tailored specifically to the needs of each student, because even people who have been diagnosed with the same disability have differing experiences and face different circumstances.  These programs are reviewed every year by the student’s teacher, parent(s), the child themself and a qualified agency representative related to special education.  Other individuals can be brought in to review the program at the discretion of the parents or agency involved.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.”  Title II of the act requires state and local governments to make their services and resources equally available to people with disabilities.  According to Title II, there are architectural standards that suggest buildings should be accessible to all people.  Buildings constructed after the act passed are expected to meet these standards upon when they are built, while buildings that were constructed prior to the passing of the act are to be altered.  Since the services/resources of state and local governments include public educational institutions, these institutions are expected to meet these standards, which helps to make education more accessible.

Acknowledgement Is Not Enough

Despite the American legislation put in place to ensure educational equality for students with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Laws have been created but are not always followed.

The Oregon Department of Education, for example, is being sued by Disability Rights Oregon (along with four other legal groups) due to its “lax oversight of special education programs . . . in small, rural communities.” Many schools in the state have been found to give students with learning or behavioral disabilities a shortened school day of only a few hours.  The schools have given a range of explanations for shortening student’s school days, from saying that they were responding to inappropriate behavior (some of which is related to the symptoms of the students’ disabilities) to teachers saying they had a feeling that “it was going to be a bad day.”  In many cases, the students would be able to get through a normal school day if they had the resources they need.  They simply have not been given the opportunity to try.  The lawyers involved in the lawsuit wrote, “Some children who are subjected to shortened school days due to their disability-related behaviors are eventually denied any instruction at all.”  This is a denial of their right to an education and it cannot continue.

The seclusion and unfair treatment of students with disabilities in the U.S. is not limited to Oregon.  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, more than 36,000 students were secluded during the 2015-2016 school year, and 66% of those students were students with disabilities, despite only making up 12% of all students enrolled.  Students with disabilities also make up 26% of those who received out of school suspension and 24% of those who were expelled.  Part of the problem is that the federal government does not currently have any actual regulations related to the seclusion of students with disabilities.  It merely suggests that seclusion be used if a student is a physical threat to themselves or others and that the seclusion should end when the student is no longer a threat.  Due to its impact on students’ access to their education, this issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Library books. Source: CCAC North Library, Creative Commons

An International Problem

This problem can be found around the world.  In Nepal, for example, children with disabilities are far from having their educational needs properly met.  In 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that more than 207,000 of the country’s children have disabilities.  In 2016, 30.6% of children with disabilities were not attending school.  In some cases, the students with disabilities who are enrolled in school are kept in classes that are completely inappropriate for their age group.  According to HRW report on the situation, one sixteen-year-old named Amman was placed in Class 2, where his classmates were between the ages of seven and ten years-old.  His disabilities are physical, limiting his movement and speech but not his mental development.  The school has steps at its entrance with no ramp available, forcing Amman to crawl to his classroom.  He was not able to use the restroom during the six hours school was in session, so another student would have to go to his house and get his mother to come to the school and help.  Not only is this an immense barrier to Amman’s access to his education, but it also an utterly dehumanizing way to treat someone.

The country is not ignorant of the fact that people with disabilities have a right to an education.  In 2010, the country even ratified the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to promote and improve the access to the rights of people with disabilities around the world.

Recent Developments

Though many problems still exist in the field of education for people with disabilities, progress is being made.  On January 17, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to “work with schools to reduce incidents of improper restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities”.  They will use “compliance reviews” of school systems under suspicion of improper restraint and seclusion of students and “offer guidance on obligations under federal civil rights law.”  According to Elizabeth Hill, spokesperson for the Education Department, they plan to do more than 70 interviews each year.

Disability Rights Are Human Rights

In public conversations about human rights, people with disabilities are often left out or overlooked.  It is important that we intentionally work towards being more inclusive.

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which the United States has still not ratified) focuses on the right to education.  According to the document, countries associated with the UN are expected to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning”.  This involves making sure that people with disabilities are not kept separate from the rest of the education system and receive the support they need.

In addition to acknowledging the right to education for people with disabilities, Article 24 includes an explanation of why education is incredibly vital, both in general and specifically in the lives of people with disabilities.  Education facilitates the development of one’s view of others and themselves, their personality, their creative talents, their mental and physical abilities, and their ability “to participate effectively in a free society.”  These developments shape the role that each individual plays in the world, making education an absolutely priceless and fundamental human right.

Resources at UAB

Students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham can contact the campus’s Disability Support Services (DSS) to request accommodations through their website or at 205-934-4205.  This process involves completing an online application, submitting documentation of their disability, and having an Accommodation Planning meeting.  Accommodations that are often used include reduced distraction testing, extended time on exams, note-taking services, assistive technology, and captionists/interpreters.

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