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Student with disability talking with fellow classmate

Back to School: The Struggle for Inclusive Education

August 24, 2023


It’s August, and as much as some of us dread the thought, summer is coming to an end. Many students across the country are already back in school, and summer vacations are a happy but fading memory.

The beginning of the school year is an increasing source of anxiety for many. People of faith who can’t afford or who don’t have access to a faithful Catholic school may be wondering what new conflicts the year will bring. The progressive demise of government schools in the United States is often in the news, and parents are increasingly aware that finding alternatives to those schools is critical to the education—and perhaps especially to the psychological and spiritual welfare—of their children.

From controversies over biological sex and gender that raise disturbing questions regarding who gets to use which bathroom, to woke perspectives on American history, many, if not most, of our government schools are working to replace parental values and traditional virtues, like replacing patriotism with Marxist-fueled, disruptive pedagogies driven by a subversive agenda. Parents are losing control of their children’s education. They are even being shut out of critically important issues, such as their child questioning their sexual orientation or “gender identity.”

For Catholic parents who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Catholic school programs that can provide for their children’s special needs are mostly nonexistent. In 1975, the U.S. Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was reauthorized and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. The law mandates that children with disabilities in government funded schools have access to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. As a result, more than one-third of children with disabilities are now spending about eighty percent of their school time in classrooms with their typical peers, an individualized educational plan, and teachers and resources to assist them with their special learning needs.

Of course, IDEA only applies to government funded schools. Catholic parents who would like to have the same educational opportunities for their children with learning differences are mostly out of luck. In most areas of the country, their only choices are to homeschool their children or put them into a public educational setting that is increasingly hostile to their religious beliefs. For most, that first option isn’t possible, which leaves only the last option.

This quandary seems inconsistent with what the Church has stated regarding the importance of welcoming and providing for people with disabilities in our communities. Pope Francis has said that including people with disabilities can’t be just a slogan, and the U.S. Bishops in their Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities said that the “Defense of the right to life . . . implies the defense of other rights . . . [including] the right to equal opportunity in education.” In 2005, leaders in Catholic education gathered to reflect on the progress of Catholic education after the Vatican II document, Gravissimum Educationis and affirmed the Catholic bishops’ statement, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium. They agreed that “truly Catholic” elementary and secondary schools should be “available, accessible, and affordable, to all Catholic parents and their children” (see Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools).

Parents who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities will affirm that these, and other statements remain aspirational and mostly unfulfilled. There is much work to do.

I don’t want to give the impression that good things are not happening in some areas. An August 4 essay in Our Sunday Visitor presents the challenge and provides a glimpse into the positive developments that are happening to provide for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Catholic schools. The article references the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion statistic that estimates only two percent of Catholic schools include students with intellectual disabilities. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that 6.9% of students in Catholic schools have a diagnosed disability. 

So, what should families who have intellectually or developmentally disabled children do if they find themselves in a situation where they no longer feel they can have them attend their local government school?

The first thing to do is pray. Next, get busy and network. Talk to others and find a group of people that share your same concerns. If you don’t consider yourself a leader capable of approaching a pastor about starting an inclusion program in your parish school, find someone in your group who is and schedule a meeting together. Ask what would be necessary to get an inclusion program going in your parish or diocesan school. As those involved with the disability community understand, there is no “one size fits all.” The range of abilities and behaviors in the community is much wider than many understand and presents some challenges. Be realistic about what is possible at the beginning.

Parents who have children with disabilities understand the importance of advocacy. We spend much of our lives advocating for opportunities for our children. Read the essay that I referenced above and get in touch with the organizations it mentions. Find out what others have done and explore the options they may suggest. I have mentioned All Belong Center for Inclusive Education before. They are wonderful people who are already working with other Catholic and Christ-centered schools. Give them a call and ask what they would suggest. If you’re really brave, you can start your own inclusive Catholic school, like the Michalak family in the Louisville, KY area. The classical education movement is spreading like fire around the country, and many believe it is the ideal educational philosophy for inclusion since there is such a strong focus on individual achievement and not false metrics of success.

I would also encourage those who are interested in the topic of Catholic inclusive education to get in touch with me. We have a small but growing group of people who are interested in sharing ideas around the topic of inclusive Catholic schools, and I would be happy to add you to the list. You can email me at [email protected].

There is no topic more important to families than the education of their children. Catholic parents who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities don’t need the added anxiety of wondering how to protect our children from schools that have become overwhelmed by ideologies that are destructive to our faith and the wholesome formation of our children.

The only way the number of inclusive Catholic schools will grow is if we’re insistent that the Church grow outward from its aspirational comments about providing for people with disabilities. We can do it together. All of our children should be given the opportunity for a Catholic education at the parish and/or diocesan level. Pastors and school principals are well intended; they may just need a gentle nudge and the right kind of parental support to make it happen.