When 'Retard' Stops Being an Insult

Last Tuesday, at Herzliya's Weizman elementary school, a group of children with moderate and serious mental retardation from the neighboring Ofek school arrived for a joint music class. Two or three of the Weizman students sit next to each Ofek student. The relationship is very close. These meetings began a few years ago, and they are now routine - just like helping with zippers, or taking an Ofek schoolgirl to the bathroom down the hall. Two Weizman students accompany her slowly and wait for her to return. Just then, a group of Weizman students is finishing its music lesson - at Ofek.

The activities with the Ofek school are just one aspect of Weizman's principles, which has been integrating special needs students for many years: Of its 425 students, 25 are in three special education classrooms and 40 more are fully integrated into regular classrooms, including children with cerebral palsy, Asperger's or Tourette's. Also among the school's students are about 50 immigrant children, a dozen children of foreign workers and a similar number of children whose mothers reside in the Herzliya shelter for battered women. The teaching staff is in touch with welfare authorities regarding about 20 percent of the student body. The school also has 75 gifted or outstanding students who receive enrichment activities. "Special needs are just part of our handling of the right to be different," says principal Sarah Oren.

Sixth-grader Daniel Yankelovitz talks about the joint activities with Ofek: "I have changed a little. When I was little, I didn't know there were kids like these, but now I know how important our activities are. We have the right to go to school and learn, and so do they. Kids in other schools don't understand that, they will run to the other side of the street when they see a mentally retarded child." There are signs that these are not just slogans. After two years of activities with Ofek, the teachers in Daniel's class noticed the kids stopped using the word "retard" as an insult. "Every child has compassion. They understand the world and themselves a little differently through meeting those who are different," Oren explains.

A third grade special education class includes children diagnosed with language acquisition difficulties. Once, these classes were held in basements or other buildings, instituting the separation. That day is past.

But make no mistake: Integration at the school is an endless, frustrating task. The principal and the teachers tell of the many hours of preparation, efforts get to know students better - both regular and special ed - and the constant struggle for budgets and assistance hours for integrated students. Sometimes it involves complicated moral decisions about who gets the few hours of help the Education Ministry finances. The school tries to compensate children who don't get enough assistance hours during class with after-school reinforcement.

"Problems occur every day," Oren says, "We are all scared, for instance, when a student has an outburst and knocks over desks. But especially in those situations, the regular students watch how we react. The easiest thing to do is to say that integration doesn't work." And there are parents who call teachers and complain about violence, and that their child is not protected well-enough. "The explanation I give is that there is no guarantee - for any parent - that his child won't fall apart tomorrow. It could be because of the parents' divorce or a sibling with cancer, and the parents can be assured we won't give up on their kid, just like we fight for other children," Oren says.

Integration motivates teachers

The question on the limits of integration is under constant discussion here. It is a two-way test: Both for those students whom the staff feels they can no longer help and who must therefore transfer to a special education school; and for the children who started at the school in the special ed classes and transfer to regular classrooms. During Oren's eleven years at the school, only five children have switched to a special education framework, compared to many who have integrated into regular classrooms.

The everyday work is trying, but integrating the special needs students motivates the regular teachers, forces them to stay up-to-date, to study and to find the right path.

Some of the teachers are nagged by the concern that handling special ed students comes at the expense of the regular students. "Handling a special child requires a lot of time and energy," says first grade teacher Sarah Veg. "The regular children need me, too, and sometimes I feel that I don't get to them. We need to be super-sensitive." Beyond getting to know the different students, the integrated classroom grants advantages to regular students, too, such as personal study programs.

Not all teachers are suitable for integration work. In the years she has run Weizman, Oren has transferred two teachers who couldn't handle the difficulties. She considers that a personal failure because, "The most important thing as a principal is 'strengthening' the staff, providing all possible assistance." No one at the school, not even veteran teachers, is immune to problems stemming from the fears that accompany getting a class with special students. "I was more scared than the kids themselves," one teacher recalls. "They have known the special-needs kid since first grade, and their approach calmed me." Nonetheless, most teachers here request classes with "challenge children" as they call them.

Separation walls fall

The Weizman parents' committee represents the families of all kinds of students. The committee is chaired by Meirav Seymour, whose son Raz is in a special ed class. The summer before first grade, she remembers, "I was hysterical, petrified by the chances of his integration at school. Raz throws up under pressure. Until then, society pushed my child aside and I was afraid he would be laughed at here. A few days before the beginning of school, they told me to calm down, it was okay that Raz throws up, he would flourish here."

For the first few months Raz did throw up, sometimes three or four times a day. No one gave up. "The teachers taught his classmates in special ed not to laugh at him and later the other students, too," Meirav says. "Today the problem is gone. On Saturday Raz asks when he can go back to school. Raz meets a friend at the sports center and the other child doesn't ignore him. Integration has succeeded. Raz will always be different, but integration takes him as far as he can go."

When Raz was in first grade, Meirav initiated a meeting of all the first grade mothers. The walls fell slowly between the parents. A few weeks later, Raz was invited to a regular student's birthday party for the first time. Meirav was nervous. "Raz sat on the side and wanted pretzels," she recalls, "but he was too shy to go get them. One of the children brought him a plate of pretzels. I started to cry."