Posts Tagged 'school'

Including Samuel

By Harry van Versendaal

Big shocks change perceptions. Shortly after he became a father for the second time, New Hampshire resident Dan Habib falsely received a near-death diagnosis for his newborn child, Samuel. No surprise, little seemed the same after that.

Samuel, now 11, was eventually found to suffer from cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that makes it very difficult for him to control his muscles. Apart from being a very supportive father, or maybe because of it, Habib, a professional photojournalist, reacted to the news by doing what he knows best. He made a film about the family’s efforts to include their mobility-challenged son in every aspect of life — including a regular school.

The result is a 58-minute documentary advocating the merits of inclusive education, i.e. incorporating children with disabilities in typical schools and classrooms. “Including Samuel,” which has already been screened on a number of national television networks, at universities as well as in theaters across the United States, will be shown next week at the “How I Am: Challenging Perceptions” section of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Samuel brought the disability rights movement into our own home,” Habib said in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

Apart from providing snapshots of Samuel’s experiences over a span of four years, the film also features enlightening interviews with teachers, pupils, therapists and parents. Habib does not shy from the hard stuff. Including Samuel is a process that involves small, everyday triumphs as well as painfully sobering setbacks. But the overall message comes across strong: Inclusive education is worth striving for.

A beaming boy with emphatic eyes, Samuel moves around on a power-assist wheelchair and his speech is labored. He loves baseball and, like many kids of his age, wants to become an astronaut.

In spite of the daunting challenges for everyone involved, Habib never tires to point out that inclusive education is not a zero-sum equation. “Samuel will never tie his shoes or make a sandwich,” he said. “But people have told me he’s made a bigger impact on them that anyone else they’ve ever met in their life.”

How did you get the idea to make this documentary?

When Samuel was 3, he got very sick: He had a tonsillectomy and aspirated blood and developed pneumonia. I’d started taking some photos in the hospital and his doctor knew I was a photojournalist and said, “Why not tell the story of what it’s like to be the parent of a child with a disability?” It was cathartic — to have something to do other than worry. And then I was showing my still photographs to a group of high school students and they said, “We like your pictures, but without seeing video we can’t connect.” That’s when I started to do a film.

What did you aspire to achieve with this film? What has been the reception of the movie so far?

My hope is that my film will inspire the public — especially anyone connected to education — to talk about inclusion in a more informed and innovative way. I also hope they will get to know Samuel at the same time.

By honestly portraying a story I had intimate access to — our own – I hoped that Samuel would open hearts and minds to see a larger truth: disability is a natural part of the diversity of our society.

When I was making it, my public hope was that it would have a big impact in New Hampshire, and my secret hope was that it would have an impact nationally. The impact has far exceeded anything I hoped for. It’s been broadcast on national public television, shown at film festivals around the world and translated into 17 languages. I’ve given over 200 presentations in 30 states and several countries.

“Including Samuel” is sparking action around disability rights and inclusion from Miami to Maui and Australia to Iraq. The DVD and viewers’ guide are being used in thousands of hospitals, schools, nonprofits, parent groups and state agencies to spark system change in communities nationally and internationally. It’s been an amazing journey.

What were your main challenges in shooting this film?

Making this film forced me to look at my own prejudices. Before I had Samuel, when I saw people who couldn’t walk or talk, what crept into my head? It’s painful to admit, but I often saw them as less smart, less capable, and not worth getting to know. Now I wonder if that how the world sees Samuel.

Also, I really work hard in the film and my presentations not to blame teachers. A lot of teachers, once they try inclusion, are astounded that it’s not as hard as they think it’s going to be and they believe they become better teachers as a result. Some teachers have told me this is the most rewarding experience they’ve had. But it only happens with supportive leadership, so that if a teacher is struggling, they get the training or supports they need. Universal Design for Learning curriculum and technology are important.

Lastly, I continually had to decide when to pick up the camera and film, and when to pick up a baseball mitt and “just be Dad.”

What has been the impact of the whole experience on your family and you personally?

Making this film helped me envision the life we want and expect for Samuel. We have a supportive network of teachers, therapists, relatives and friends who help us work toward that goal every day. And there is Samuel himself, whose smile and persistence make clear his own vision of happiness.

Samuel brought the disability rights movement into our home. It came with lots of questions: Can we continue to fully include Samuel as he goes to middle and high school? What about the times when illnesses force Samuel to miss weeks or months of school? As an adult, will he find a mate? Will he get a job that he likes?

I don’t know the answers to those questions right now. But I do know that Samuel loves life. He loves to laugh and he loves NASCAR racing. He’s determined to keep up with his brother and to be a part of everything that we do.

Has your experience over the years strengthened or shifted your views on inclusive education?

Our belief in inclusive education grows stronger all the time. When we thought about what we hoped for Samuel, it was that that he’d be a participating and fully welcomed member of our community. That meant attending his local school.

From a personal point of view, school is the hub of our community. If the school is truly welcoming, as they should be to every neighborhood child, then a child can be successful in any environment with the right supports, which is what the law says in the US.

Attending the local school has a major social impact. Because Samuel goes to school with his friends, they’re over at our house every day, they know his DynaVox voice device, they know he plays baseball, they know he loves NASCAR and dinosaurs and volcanoes. He’s not the kid in the wheelchair. Everybody knows him and they talk to him and with him.

From an educational perspective, every piece of research we’ve been able to find shows better academic achievement for kids in inclusive settings. And we’re seeing that for kids without disabilities as well. At the University of Wisconsin, they’re working on a study that shows that kids without disabilities become much more engaged in the curriculum and retain more when they’re working in partnership with kids who need some support or mentoring. They also find behavior is better because kids become more patient and compassionate. When you’re in a truly diverse environment — not just ethnicities, but socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities — that’s how you develop social and emotional skills.

When I talk to audiences I ask them to think back to when they were at school: “What played a greater role in who you are as a person today — relationships or academics?” One-hundred percent say relationships. That’s a good thing to remind educators. A lot of school is about social-emotional development.

I’ve learned inclusion usually succeeds — not necessarily because of money or technology, although they help — but because of leadership from the top administrators in a district and attitude. And the attitude being that all kids deserve to be in a general education classroom and can benefit from it — and that all kids can achieve. It’s an amazing thing how many educators don’t believe that — how many teachers in regular ed and special ed don’t have high expectations for kids with disabilities. When inclusion doesn’t work, we blame it on the kids. It’s because of this kid’s particular qualities. In the US, the law is that you are in the least restrictive environment with the proper support.

You show me any kid who you say can’t be included, and I’ll show you a kid with similar characteristics being included somewhere else. It’s about the environment, not the kid.

I believe life skills are best learned when a kid is living life with his or her peers. You can’t sit and teach a kid life skills in an artificial environment. If we’re focused on getting a kid to tie his shoes and brush his teeth, we’re placing the bar too low. Samuel will never tie his shoes or make a sandwich, but people have told me he’s made a bigger impact on them than anyone else they’ve ever met in their life.

What is the situation now in the United States? Is there a momentum toward inclusive educational practices?

Definitely. Every year more and more children are fully included in typical schools and classrooms, and the current leadership in Washington seems supportive of this momentum. I think there will come a time when we look back on the segregation of kids with disabilities like we do now on segregation by race. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s very strange and artificial. Some people ask me, “’What are the limits of inclusion?” We haven’t even tested that theory yet. We’re doing such a bad job of it in most places in the US and internationally. Parents have to make tough choices. They’re often forced to accept a segregated setting. I’ve never met a parent who said, “My first choice is not to have my child be part of the community school.”

How is Samuel doing at the moment?

He’s 11 and in the 5th grade at the same school. Throughout elementary school, inclusion has worked really well for Samuel. Samuel is doing theater. One of his friends suggested that Samuel would be able to drum. So he’s doing drumming in music at school. He played baseball in the spring and went skiing this winter. He’s done karate and judo and rides an adapted bike. He loves video games, PlayStation and YouTube. In most ways, he’s a pretty typical 11-year-old.

For more information about the movie visit


Unwanted masses on the move


Photo by Natalia Tsoukala


By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”

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