September started with another indignity: the school had not yet hired a promised teaching aide. The first two weeks were very hard, especially since all concerned were only beginning to understand that Cyrus does not work well in large groups. In an average-sized class of 18 or 19 children he is hyperactive and restless, losing concentration and self-control. In March of last year, he tried a new school in a class of children with behavior problems whose needs are acknowledged and accommodated. His abilities shone through; his parents were informed that he was the best-behaved child in the class.
But for every step forward, another barrier lies ahead; whenever needs are different from those of the mainstream (that is, usually white, male, able-bodied and heterosexual), their accommodation must be justified again and again. Although Cyrus has done well with one-on-one support, his I parents have been told that a teaching aide, will not be available to him in the new school year. The school board has decided that he should try his classes alone, and an aide will be hired only after he demonstrates that he cannot manage without one. His parents are not looking forward to a possibly difficult first month.
"It's always, save on the budget, save on the budget," Claire says. "But Ardeshir and I say that if a person doesn't get an education because you haven't given him the environment, years later there are a lot more costs and a lot bigger losses."
And so the struggles continue, even as a little progress is made. "At school, I sensed there were people on staff who doubted Cyrus's intellectual and academic ability. I found it hard to believe that they would make conclusions about somebody they obviously hadn't bothered to get to know. Because if they had, they would see a very different child."
The very different child is the one I visit in an accommodating environment: a sunny, comfortable home, where Cyrus appears to be an friendly, intelligent, creative boy, coloring quietly on his own for an hour at the kitchen table, getting up periodically only to show his father his progress. He and his mother show me a story he has written; it is exceptionally good. He has many interests. "I like to paint and draw," he tells me, "and write stories. I like to soak my brother with the hose. And I love swimming."
At school, Cyrus says, he wants to learn "how to draw and write. I want to learn how to use computers." He sometimes poses philosophical questions ("Can something have no beginning but an end?") and displays an overall great interest in learning. Determined that Cyrus feel good about himself and make the most of his potential, Claire struggles to understand the lack of awareness which is too reminiscent of the ignorance she faced so many years ago. "When you can see that someone's disabled, you don't ask the question, are they really disabled? But when it's a disability that manifests itself in behavior, when you can't see the actual problem, people seem to find a way to say that there's nothing wrong here, that the person is accountable for the behavior.
"Too often, people perceive that socially acceptable behaviors are more valuable than a human being. People put a lot of value into conformity and social roles, without ever finding out how much they would be prepared to accept differences in another person." For Cyrus and for so many students with disabilities, this acceptance is crucial to their success in a school system that has a lot of learning to do.
Lisa Bendall is the Editorial Coordinator of Abilities magazine, a lifestyle publication for people with disabilities (see Resources, this issue). Lisa has been involved in disability issues for the past ten years.