In this episode, I focus on inclusive classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities with filmmaker Olivier Bernier. How does inclusivity impact student success?
There are an estimated 7.3 million children with disabilities, accounting for 14% of the students enrolled in our public school system. According to The Individuals with Disabilities Act, students with disabilities are guaranteed the right to be education in the least restrictive environment, usually referred to as the general education classroom.
In 1994, an analysis concluded that "special-needs students educated in regular classes do better academically and socially than comparable students in non-inclusive settings." Furthermore, a national study on inclusive education by the National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion in 1995 reported academic, behavioral, and social benefits for both students with and without disabilities.
Even with significant literature documenting successful inclusion practices almost 30 years ago, many students with disabilities today still face a segregated classroom reality.
Olivier's son, Emilio, was born with Down syndrome almost seven years ago. Since then, he and his wife Hilda have sought what all parents want for their child: to be included.
Olivier used his background as a filmmaker to create the award-winning documentary, "Forget Me Not: Inclusion in the Classroom," released in October 2022. It features his family and their journey into the most segregated school system in the nation: New York City. Surprised? I was.
Here is the call to action: support inclusive classrooms in your schools. Inclusion is the educational philosophy based on the belief that it is every person's inherent right to fully participate in society, implying the acceptance of differences. True acceptance of diversity develops within the school environment and is then carried into the home, workplace, and community where we all live.
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Welcome to the Brighter Side of Education. I am your host, Dr. Lisa Hassler, here to enlighten and brighten the classrooms in America through focus conversation important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing, and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables and how can we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I focus on inclusive classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities. How does inclusivity student success? There are an estimated 7.3 million children with disabilities accounting for 14% of the students enrolled in our public school system. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Act, students with disabilities are guaranteed the right to be educated in the least restrictive environment, usually referred to as the general education classroom. In 1994, an analysis concluded that special needs students educated in regular classes do better academically and socially, then comparable students non-inclusive settings. Furthermore, a national study on inclusive education by the National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion in 1995 reported academic, behavioral and social benefits for both students with and without disabilities. Now even with significant literature documenting successful inclusion practices almost 30 years ago, many students with disabilities today still face a segregated classroom reality. Here to discuss inclusive education Olivier Bernier. His son Emilio, was born with Down Syndrome almost seven years ago. Since then, he and his wife Hilda sought what all parents want for their child to included. Olivier used his background as a filmmaker to create the award-winning documentary,"Forget Me Not: Inclusion in the Classroom," which was released in October, 2022. It features his family and their journey into the most segregated school system in the nation, New York City. Surprised? I was. Welcome to show. Olivier!Olivier Bernier:
Thank you so much for having me.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Glad you're here. Can you tell us about yourself and what led you to create a documentary film?Olivier Bernier:
Sure. Well before Emilio was born, I was a filmmaker and all throughout the process of my wife wife's pregnancy and really our whole relationship, I was always had a camera in my hand, was always filming. And the moment that Emilio arrived, I was also filming by accident actually. And the camera was rolling when we learned that our son was born with Down Syndrome. And from that moment on, it just set me on a new path. And that's kind of where the film was born.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
What is,"Forget Me Not" about, and what are your hopes for the film?Olivier Bernier:
At its core,"Forget Me Not" is about inclusive education. About three years, into Emilio's Life we, or two years into his, his life, we started making a film about inclusive education because from the moment he was born, my wife and I decided that the one thing we wanted for Emilio was that he lives a life like any other child, and that he has the opportunity to achieve his full potential. And the only way we knew how to do that was to give him a normal upbringing where he was just part of society and that really started with education. That's kind of your first immersion into society. And we wanted him to be included like any other child and not segregated into a small class of only children with disabilities. So I had no idea what inclusive education was exactly, because when Emilio was born, I was completely unprepared for him cuz I had gone to a fully segregated school and had never met anyone with Down Syndrome. So I went on a journey to learn what inclusive education was, how it worked, and that was the beginning of the film.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
So what do you hope is going to happen with the release of it?Olivier Bernier:
Well, since we've released the film, we've seen a lot of positive reactions both from parents who have children with disabilities that see their own reflection in the film and their own, their own struggles in the film. And, there's a lot of people that just had no idea that children with disabilities are being segregated because we always say, oh, there's a special class for children with disabilities. There's a special place for them. But really that's just a kind way of saying that you don't belong with the other kids. You need to go to your own class and learn in a different way. And so I think a lot of parents of typically developing children are seeing the film and learning a different way to, to approach teaching students with disabilities. And you know, I think that's important because what I tried to do with the film was really to create a bridge a bridge that I didn't have when Emilio was born. And I largely made the film for myself before Emilio was born because we need to cross that gap in society where people with disabilities are integrated into our everyday lives.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Yeah, absolutely. I know a lot of times you just hear about inclusive classrooms and we think about children with disabilities as being the child that may have behavioral issues or maybe struggling academically, A D H D or children on the spectrum. I reflect on my own teaching for the last 20 years, and you're absolutely right. There was not one child in my school that had Down Syndrome. I never thought about that until I saw your film. And I really thought about that. I really processed it to say, well, why not? And, where are they and why are they not in our classrooms and I never really thought about that as a teacher and even as a parent. My child is on the spectrum. And I used to be very frustrated because his disability was masked by looking like he was like everybody else. So everyone just treated him like everybody else. And so there's those things that go in there as well. There's just so many levels to inclusivity that we're not thinking about. When we think about the regular ed classroom and how do we actually promote a truly inclusive environment and how that benefits every child that's in there, not just the child with disabilities but it also impacts the children without disabilities as well to understand that this is what society is and this is how we work together to lift each other up and to have a more integrated, fully accepting community. I think it's a kinder world to live in. But now we go back to the historic treatment. You talked about that in your film, the historic treatment of people with disabilities, and that was to segregate them and to hide them from society. In your film you talk about how Geraldo Rivera exposed his findings about the segregation of children with intellectual disabilities in 1972 through an investigative report. And it led to the eventual closure of most of the institutions in America that were treating people like this. Yet segregation continues in the educational system today, in 2023, and that's over 50 years later. Can you explain what District 75 is?Olivier Bernier:
Sure. Well, to step back for just a minute to what you said about the institutions. Everybody knew the institutions existed. It's just that nobody had seen what the institutions were actually like because we all imagined that these children were going to a place where they were getting the treatment they needed to be happy. And the truth is, when cameras were set loose in these institutions, it really changed the public's opinion on what these institutions were and how valuable they were to society. And that is what led to the shutdown. So I think, when you show things in a different perspective it changes people's opinions. But when these institutions got shut down, especially in New York, there was suddenly thousands and thousands of children that had to be absorbed into the education system. And the easiest and quickest way to do that was to create a special district for these children. And they called that District 75. And District 75 is something we live with today in New York City. There's about, estimates range, but it's about 60 to 70,000 children in District 75. And these children are in the same building as other schools, but they're on separate floors often. They use separate entrances. They rarely have lunch together, rarely have gym together nevermind academic classes. So these children are really segregated, as segregated as you can possibly be. And you know, in the film we kind of look at that and say, this wouldn't be accepted for any other cohort in society. Why is it okay for people with disabilities?Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Yeah, absolutely. I was very surprised by that. Someone in your film that said they didn't even know that it was happening in their own school. They never saw these children that were in District 75 didn't know it existed, didn't see them coming and going, nothing. So that's not inclusivity at all. If you are not actually included in anything it's not being inclusive. Just because you share a building does not make it inclusive. I was so surprised by that. I don't even know if, if something like that exists in other cities and other states, but I was very surprised to hear about something like District 75 even existing Now while you and your wife were looking for an inclusive classroom that would support Emilio in the way that you had hoped that he would be supported in an educational system there was a principal and teachers that fully embraced inclusive classrooms, for students of all abilities, can you describe what inclusion should look like and the benefits for students with disabilities and those without?Olivier Bernier:
When we visited the Henderson school in Boston, it was just remarkable. We had been expecting to see an inclusive school, but I didn't really know what that would look like until we stepped foot in it. And the moment you step foot in the Henderson school, you just get a sense of belonging. Everybody belongs. It doesn't matter what you look like it doesn't matter. You know, if you speak, if you don't speak, if you can see, if you can't see or what disability you have or if you're just typically developing. Everybody belongs together. They go to class together. They learn from each other and with each other. And to see the strategies that the teachers implement was really remarkable. And without getting too much in the weeds, there's just a variety of ways that they teach the same lesson within a class. And to see that happening, me having been a visual learner, I was like, wow, I would've really excelled to learn this, you know, math this way. For example,Track 1:
in my case, we learned with a teacher, putting numbers on the blackboard and, it was difficult for me. You know, I think what you see is that every child benefits because every child learns differently. And then secondly the social impact can't be understated.Olivier Bernier:
These children are growing up together and they see each other as completely normal. Everybody is normal because that's all they know. You know, I think the biases that we have towards people with disabilities are learned and children don't have those they have to be taught to them. And a neurotypical child that grows up with a child that has a disability, they are friends, they're buddies, and they might see differences, but that doesn't hamper them from not talking to each other or them not playing with each other. that carries on for the rest of life. So really, when you look at a classroom in the Henderson school, you're really looking at a mirror of what society should be, you know, where everyone gets along and everyone works with each other and has clear differences, but that doesn't matter.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Now you weren't able to get into the Henderson school. Were they like capped out I don't know how the New York school system works.Olivier Bernier:
Yeah. Well, we went, we went to the Henderson school to see what inclusion was. We lived in New York, so it was hard to just pick up and go to Boston. But that's, that's a whole other story when it comes to inclusive education because there's so many districts that are keeping children segregated. Someone who's seeking conclusion might feel like they have to move or leave their district in order to find that. and we see that happening a lot. And especially in Dorchester, Boston, where the Henderson school is, there's a lot of people that have moved from across the city or in various parts of the northeast just to be near that school in Dorchester so they can register in that school. And they have quite a waiting list because of it.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Oh, I bet which is surprising then that more schools like that are not opening up seeing that there's such a, a strong need and that it is something that parents want. You would think that more schools would be using that model. Now Emilio did start preschool in the film where he was able to get into an inclusive classroom. How did that impact his growth and success being in that inclusive environment?Olivier Bernier:
We saw Emilio flourish in his first year of preschool. His social skills expanded exponentially. He was becoming more verbal, which was interesting for us to see. His behaviors were changing, he was sharing more, he was playing with other children more. You know, in preschool is largely. Structured play in many ways. But they were learning real things. And Emilio came in with an advantage because he had years of early intervention. So he knew all the letters, he knew all the colors, all the numbers up to 10. And you know, he, he knew all these lessons already, so he was succeeding tremendously and his teacher was very happy with his progress.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Now he is six and in kindergarten. How has his educational journey progressed since the film ended?Olivier Bernier:
Well, the, the film leaves us on kind of a dark note because at his second, IEP Emilio was recommended for a segregated setting, despite having been very successful in an integrated class. And at that point, you know, we had to go through a legal process and the film kind of ends there since then. You know, at that point we were deep in the pandemic and everyone was learning from home. Everyone was secluded in a way. And during that time we had a second child and we decided to leave New York and start fresh somewhere. So we moved to New Jersey who were. You know, New Jersey has its own set of problems, very similar to New York, but we moved to a district that has been really supportive of Emilio so far and he is fully included in kindergarten, in a general education class. And his teachers are excellent. His therapists are amazing and they have just been supportive of the idea of Emilio being included and they love Emilio and we've seen him flourish. It's hard to not think that that has something to do with his inclusive setting.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
Yes, absolutely. And it, and it's gotta be joyful for you as a parent to be able to see your child flourish under those circumstances that you in your heart knew he needed. I think that goes to how important it is to be a strong advocate as a parent of a child with disabilities. And we spoke just a little bit earlier about how yesterday was World Down Syndrome Day and you were talking about the importance of advocacy for parents that was being addressed. I know for myself as a parent in that position, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a parent's role in being their child's biggest advocate and supporter because you know what's right for your child and you really need to be the one to make that happen. What advice can you give to other parents of children with intellectual disabilities when it comes to advocating for their child and education?Olivier Bernier:
Well, first of all, my advice would be to do what you think is right and read and talk to other parents that have been through it, because I think that's, those experiences are really important, but ultimately, what you have in your gut is usually the right thing. And I tell parents to remember that for every child that becomes included in the education system, they're building a bridge. They're building a bridge between two parts of society that traditionally, for the last a hundred years have not been inclusive. And, with every child that becomes included there's 20 other children that get to grow up with that child, or maybe hundreds of other children that get to grow up with that child and see a different way of doing things. So for. all the fighting and all the struggle to get your child included. You're doing so much more for the generation that's coming after your child, and that's important to remember that you're showing your activism just by what you're doing for your own child. So I think that's really important to remember. And trust me, there's times when you just wanna fold and you wanna give up and what they're saying sounds right, maybe, but then you remember why you're doing this, and it's because your child deserves to be with every other child. And as an adult, your child will grow up and know that they're not disenfranchised, that they can go to work, that they can achieve their full potential. So I think just remember that all the work is worth it in the end.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
To wrap up, I'd like to focus on the future. The job market is becoming more inclusive, involving people with disabilities, and there are many studies focused on the positive impact inclusive education has on employment outcomes for children with disabilities. In the documentary you say what you want for Emilio's future in his voice. Can you tell us what that is?Olivier Bernier:
Yeah. I think the most important thing is that we want Emilio to achieve his full potential, and we say that we want him to see the beauty of the world, and he can only do that if he has the opportunity. So, our job as parents is to try to give him that opportunity and to teach him that at some point he can advocate for himself to create those opportunities.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
It was a very touching part of the film. I think realizing what you say about perspective, sometimes looking at it through the lens of a teacher. We're looking at it through the lens of a parent. Look at it through the lens of the child. And that feels different it's their life and it's their journey, but it's also their emotions. And I feel that that's very touching because so many times we can get tied up in the advocacy, this is what's right and this is what's wrong. And laws and policies and fairness. But, when you take a step back and you place yourself in that child's position and you look at their life through their eyes then you could see that why you're doing it matters so much. So I think it's just brings it down to a very personal level. I was very touched by itOlivier Bernier:
I think the schools are very quick to look at children as data points. You know, what's the data on this child? And, I'm an artist. I look at people, I look at humans and I see my son as a human, not as the data point. And ultimately, every human deserves the right to be part of society, and we have to do everything we can to make that happen.Dr. Lisa R. Hassler:
We do. Everyone has to work together for that to happen. And awareness is an important part of it. So that's why I think that this documentary is so important because it really is going to shine light on what that means and what that looks like, and for everyone to be more aware, because through awareness we can make a difference. We can have that change. So, here's the call to action support inclusive classrooms in your. Inclusion is the educational philosophy based on the belief that it is every person's inherent right to fully participate in society, implying the acceptance of differences. True acceptance of diversity develops within the school environment, and is then carried into the home, workplace, and community where we all live. Thank you, Olivier, for joining me today to discuss your experiences and work to improve inclusive classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities. To learn more, go to www.forgetmenotdocumentary.com. O R G E T M E N O T D O C U M E N T A R y.com. And you can access all links and the film trailer in the show notes. If you have a story about what's working in your schools that you'd like to share, email me at drlisarichardsonhassler.com or visit my website at www.drlisarhassler.com and send me a message. If you like this podcast, subscribe and tell a friend. The more people that know the bigger impact it will have. And if you find value to the content in this podcast, consider becoming a supporter by linking on the supporter link in the show notes. It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads affecting positive change. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our children's success.