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Governor's Rocky Transition To Private Life Prompts Special Ed. Debate

The New York Times ran an article a few days ago on New York Gov. David Paterson and the changes he expects to face when he leaves public life. Paterson is blind, and currently relies on aides to help him with such tasks as reading his mail, or guiding him up stairs, the article notes.

The author suggests that Paterson's situation is an example of a quandary faced by parents of children with disabilities: "What is the right balance between teaching them self-sufficiency and making sure they have the special accommodations they need?"

I would argue that accommodations create self-sufficiency; they don't impede it.

I also don't think the headline writer for this article did this debate a favor by casting this as a choice between "special education" and "independence." Paterson's parents chose not to have their son learn how to use a cane, work with a Seeing Eye dog or read Braille. Paterson has clearly been able to achieve at levels most of us could only dream of. But the choices made by his parent have caused him to rely on people to guide him, read to him, and write for him in his adult life (Paterson has some vision in one eye, but he can only use his remaining sight for a few minutes at a time.)

Would Paterson still need help even if he knew Braille and could navigate with a cane or an assistance animal? Of course. Might he be more independent with those skills? I believe so, and Paterson himself appears to agree: He plans to enroll in classes at the Helen Keller Services for the Blind to learn some independent living skills.

The author of the article also writes, "The governor's mother—despite her insistence that he be treated as a regular boy—also helped him recognize that he needed a balance between striving for independence and asking for help when he needed it."

I believe that children who are blind are no less "regular" than children with sight. I suspect Paterson's parents made their decision out of fear that their child would be considered intellectually unequal to his peers. Suggesting that ignoring his blindness is the same as treating him like a "regular boy" just reinforces that prejudice. Ignoring a disability does not make the disability go away.

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