When I was in middle school, I begged my mother to homeschool me. I was struggling with the curriculum — I needed to be more challenged and more accommodated at the same time — and I was being bullied by teachers as well as peers. I was frightened, miserable, and not learning.
I didn’t get homeschooled. My mother was in graduate school and my father worked full-time. There just weren’t the resources to allow me to leave school, no matter how beneficial it would have been for me. At the time, I felt that was really unfair, but these days I’m questioning how fair it is that so many of my friends who are parenting disabled children are forced to homeschool, because school systems are still not adequately meeting the needs of children who are like I was.
Two court cases in 1972 established that disabled children have the same right to a free, public education as all children, but the battle for full inclusion continues today. Around 2 million U.S. students are homeschooled and 15% of their parents cite a physical or mental health issue as the most important reason the family chose to remove their children from the public school system.
I am a huge supporter of homeschooling and want to see it protected as a legal method of education in the United States. At the same time, I can’t help wondering if we are letting schools “off the hook” when we remove disabled children whose needs are not being adequately addressed. I decided to go straight to children themselves for answers to my questions.
Evie, 10, and Luke, 6, who are both Autistic, are exploring their elementary school level education. They’re bright, friendly, wonderful children who love learning but have encountered snags in the education process due to schools not understanding how to educate disabled children.
Luke’s mother makes sure that he has autonomy and agency to make important choices about things such as school. Luke shared that one reason he chose homeschooling was frustration with unpleasant social environments. “The other kids tease me and then lie about it,” Luke said. “It’s lonely without people to play with. I like learning at the library and on my iPad.” Luke’s mother, Anne, added that the school was particularly uncooperative with addressing Luke’s specific needs.
Anne investigated public school but didn’t like how the idea for educating Luke was to pull him out of the classroom for his core academics. “Part of this time is also spent on skills which don’t respect autistic neurology,” she said.
The public school was only using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) methods, which Luke rejected as stressful and insulting and Anne rejected as promoting compliance without understanding. “Instead of pulling him out for social skills and compliance based intervention, find meaningful break activities to help cope with sensory overload,” Anne suggested.
“I think we both want the school and others to presume competence,” Anne said. “He knows best what he needs to feel safe and learn.” Luke is now part of a homeschool co-op that he loves, where he spends time with other Autistic kids who understand and relate to him well.
Like Luke, Evie is treated with great respect in her family. “She’s always been in charge of her own education,” her mother, Priscilla, told me. “I’ve just always followed her lead in this area. Kids are smarter than us and usually know what they need more than we do!” But, unlike Luke, Evie started out in a pre-school that honored her creative, inquisitive nature.
Evie’s first school was set up on the Reggio Emilia model, an educational approach from Italy that is student-centered and encourages learning through actively exploring the world. From such a lovely, solid foundation, Evie went on to a public school kindergarten and had a horrible experience.
“Everybody should get the support they need, and the help they need, and that everybody should be treated the same way,” Evie told me. Priscilla added, “My child has the same right to an education as all other children, regardless of her disability. She deserves to be in a learning environment that meets her needs and gives her the best possible chance at learning and growing both academically and socially.”
Kindergarten wasn’t supporting Evie. “The school completely ignored all recommendations given by my daughter’s psychologist and occupational therapist.” Within a few months, Priscilla was homeschooling Evie. This worked great for the whole family for several years, but by third grade Evie was hungry for more social interaction and needed some extra help with educational accommodations.
Priscilla did not want to put Evie back in public school. Fortunately, they looked at a small charter school with a great attitude. Some charter schools are under fire because they reject or discourage disabled students or will not offer accommodation for disability. Evie’s school is the exact opposite and a perfect fit for her. “I get so much support!” Evie told me.
Evie and Luke are both getting their best chance, thanks to loving parents who support their educational needs and honor their choices. But what about other disabled children? Homeschooling must be protected as an option without being viewed as giving public schools or charter schools a free pass when it comes to inclusion and accommodation of disabled students. Every child deserves the best chance possible at life, which means it’s time for every school to live up to the mandate of inclusive education for all.