Today, I had an unfortunate encounter with a visitor to our school. It was disheartening and quite disgusting -- especially knowing her expertise and profession. I thought I would share the letter here... it explains it all. I am not sending the letter to the author because my administration is taking care of it. However, I posted my feelings here because this letter is for anyone who loves a child with a disability -- or anyone who believes every child, regardless of ability, deserves compassion.
February 5, 2013
Dear Ms. Cook,
I am writing to unfortunately express my sincere disappointment. What promised to be an exciting and inspirational school visit from a well-known author quickly turned to a disheartening and angering experience for me. As a kindergarten teacher, I am paid to nurture and teach children of all abilities. The doors of my classroom have no prerequisites – no stipulations. Every child is accepted, every child is valued, and every child is loved. These beliefs, have afforded me the most wonderful relationships and experiences with children of widely differing abilities – including moderate to profound developmental disabilities. In fact, because your picture books focus on behavior, self-control, and classroom experiences, they have been a natural fit for my diverse classroom.
Due to the love of my job that resides deep in my heart, every one of my past and present students is special, unique, and important to me. This is why your visit to our school today disturbed and angered me. A past student who is very dear to me was included in a primary grade presentation. Although I should mention her profound cognitive impairment and multiple disabilities, in our school, these characteristics do not exclude her from activities with her typically-developing peers. I don’t know what type of students you worked with when you were a teacher and counselor, but the students at our school are far from “perfect.” In our school, every child has the right to be included in daily school routines and special events, such as your visit. In our school, her loud vocalizations are simply a part of this child beloved by her peers and teachers.
My disappointment and anger stems from not only your comment that her vocalizations and presence were disruptive to your presentation, but also the disgusted looks you frequently directed at her and nearby staff. I feel the need to remind you that, regardless of her abilities, volume level, or attention to your presentation, she is a human deserving of your humility, compassion, and tolerance. She is a valued child in our school – the school that paid for your presentation.
I believe that intolerance often stems from ignorance. Although your collection of book topics and counseling/teaching background would suggest otherwise, perhaps you are in need of some education in the field of disabilities. Children who do not communicate through traditional language are called non-symbolic communicators. Although their communication may not be directly tied to a specific meaning as words and speech are, I assure you that their attempts at communication serve a purpose and function. Through vocalizations, gestures, and body movements, even children with the most profound cognitive impairment are attempting and learning to communicate with the social partners in their environments.
So, you see, as disruptive to your presentation as her vocalizations may have seemed, our student was simply attempting to communicate her desires and needs in the only means available to her. On your website (http://www.juliacookonline.com), you quote yourself: “In order to teach a child, you must enter their view of the world.” I would challenge you, Ms. Cook, to view the world through the eyes of a non-symbolic communicator… to enter our student’s view of the world. A world in which, unfortunately, intolerant and insensitive people still exist.
I find it strangely perplexing how in a room full of five-, six-, and seven-year-olds, the only person distracted by this communication was the professional and role model standing in the front of the room. Because all of our students are lucky enough to attend a school grounded in inclusive practices, what you were hearing and seeing is commonplace. After all, our society thrives on diversity – and our students are simply becoming more prepared to face the world with tolerant, kind hearts.
From the looks directed at our student and your comment today, I assume you are expecting some type of apology – some sort of apology for disrupting your important presentation to kindergarten and first-grade students. Although I cannot, nor do I want to, apologize for our student’s expression, I am sorry for several things. I’m sorry that I once read your books and felt an optimistic sense of tolerance in my heart. I’m sorry that somewhere along your path, greed and money became more important than acceptance and love of children of all abilities.
Although your behavior will not be forgotten, I hope some piece of this letter affords another child your empathy and tolerance. I hope some piece of this letter reminds you to live the understanding and accepting messages you preach in your books.