I am a man in my 40s who was born with cerebral palsy. I shared my perspective in an article for the February 2018 issue of School Bus Fleet about how much being integrated onto a regular school bus benefited me as a student educationally and socially. In that article, I wrote about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and how transportation directors are legally required to comply with the legislation. In simple terms, Section 504 states that if you are employed by an organization receiving federal funding, you cannot discriminate against someone with a disability.
In complying with Section 504, I strongly recommend mainstreaming mildly disabled children in the classroom and on the school bus. I also called on my transportation director friends to encourage parents of mildly disabled children to insist that their children be mainstreamed in the classroom and on the school bus because of the overwhelmingly positive effect that had on my educational experience.
Section 504 will always be a part of the job for transportation directors, but over the last two years, fewer districts are bringing me in to speak to their staff and I am speaking at fewer conferences. When I talk to transportation directors about this, the response I get is, “You are a great speaker, but we feel like special needs is being jammed down our throats. We would like/need to touch on other topics.”
I get it. There’s a lot involved in a transportation director’s job, but I am going to be honest: I am a little taken aback by the above statement. I firmly believe that transportation directors care a great deal about the children they transport. The job is too hard otherwise. However, I am afraid that the prevailing thought in the industry has become that although transportation directors will comply with Section 504, because of how involved their job is, special-needs education is not currently perceived to be as important as other topics, and the positive impact that I got as a young person from mainstreaming will go away.
I speak to audiences from the perspective of being a disabled child and how beneficial it was to be on a regular bus. Was I different? Absolutely. Was I physically and mentally able to handle that challenge? Absolutely. I walked a little differently, but for the most part, I was just a regular kid and deserved to be treated as such. I was not just pushed through the system. I was not seen as a disabled student who is only to be dealt with one way, only interacting with students like me. I was seen as a student.
“Please, don’t let special-needs education in school transportation go the way of the dinosaur. Learn [about] the educational value of mainstreaming students, because the disabled population is changing daily.”
Mainstreaming mildly disabled students benefits three groups. The first is the fully able population you are transporting. If the goal is to educate able-bodied students about those with disabilities, then the disabled students who can be need to be mainstreamed and not just pushed through the system. In an ever-changing world, fully able students become more tolerant, accepting, and patient through mainstreaming. We will meet people throughout our lives who are different from us, whether it is in terms of physical or mental capability, the color of one’s skin, religious preference, sexual orientation, or something else, and these lessons are best learned at a young age.
In the case of schoolchildren, learning also takes place in specialty classes (art, music, etc.), the cafeteria, on the playground, and on the school bus. I am proud of my older son for a variety of reasons, but one thing in particular is his circle of friends, who are all so different. (His mother and I only care that his friends are good people with good parents.) My son’s circle of friends was cultivated outside of the classroom during those alternative learning opportunities. The same can be done when looking to bridge able and disabled students.
The second group who benefits is the parents in your district who have disabled children. Understand that most parents with school-age disabled children are doing this for the first time. Many are scared to death. Their top priority is making sure the school experience for their child is a safe one, both physically and mentally, so they allow their child to be transported with other disabled students on a specially equipped bus. I am not saying that safety should not be a top priority, but as a transportation director who is fully educated on transporting disabled students and not just Section 504, you should encourage parents of mildly disabled children in your district to mainstream them not only for their benefit but for that of able-bodied students as well.
Thirdly, the mildly disabled students you are transporting will thrive. Every disabled student is different and are affected to varying degrees, but by and large, because of medical advances and physical therapy, special-needs students are doing better than they ever have physically and mentally. They are closer to general-education students than they ever have been, and they need to be treated as such. If not, then they are being done a disservice. Give your special-needs students the opportunity that I got. It helped me by leaps and bounds and will help them too.
Please, don’t let special-needs education in school transportation go the way of the dinosaur. Learn not only how to comply with Section 504, but also the educational value of mainstreaming students, because the disabled population is changing daily. It will benefit your entire school district.