Continue Our Fight

Posted by The Arc of North Carolina

As I come to the end of my contract with The Arc of North Carolina, I cannot get the phrase “Continue Our Fight” out of my head. I will continue to work alongside all of you to make the world a better place for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over the past month, I have been looking for a positive way to end my contributions to this blog. It’s very natural that I end with a blog post about education and the fight for the best outcome for people with disabilities.

The Gateway Education Center in Greensboro is a school for children with significant disabilities and has been part of the Greensboro community for over seventy years. The school was founded in 1949 by a group of parents led by Minnie Lyon Bennett. The group first founded a Cerebral Palsy Association and later, the school. Mrs. Bennett began her work by first putting an ad in the newspaper seeking other parents of children with cerebral palsy. This is similar to how The Arc of North Carolina began. Recently, the school had been threatened to close due to safety concerns, but due to the hard work of a group of strong advocates, Guilford County Schools have changed course and instead will work to repair the school.

Dania Ermentrout, PTA president at Gateway Education Center, offers more detail.

“Thankfully, Gateway Education Center will remain open,” Ermentrout said. “On May 16th the Guilford County Board of Commissioners authorized (by a 7-1 vote) the Guilford County Schools' request to transfer $1.6 million to fund roof repair/replacement at Gateway Education Center and $290,000 to fund window repairs at Gateway Education Center.”

I know from personal experience that a place like Gateway Education Center is a lifeline for parents who suddenly get thrust into the world of disability; the school and provides peers for students and a network of families with shared experiences. I did not go to Gateway, but I went to a very similar place in Winston Salem, the Center for Exceptional Children, that served children birth through Kindergarten. I attended preschool from the ages of 2 to 6. I am still connected to many of my classmates, believe it or not, and I have many mother figures in addition to my own.

Parent advocate Brenda Dawson tells a story of her son Connor and shows that my story is not unique.

“As a very nervous parent of a brand-new kindergartener that had never stayed with anyone but me, I requested a meeting during the summer so that I could take a look around and meet Connor’s teacher,” said Dawson. “I’ll never forget how the office staff and Connor’s teacher, Ms. Tammy, made me feel so welcome and safe the day we first met.”

Dawson continued: “Straight away I knew Sara, the principal, was someone special when I had to run out to my car to grab something I had forgotten and came back in to find Connor cradled in her arms. Most of my own family won’t even try to hold Connor, and yet she didn’t even know him and didn’t give it a second thought. As fearful as I was, I knew in that very moment we had made the right decision to sell our home and move to Guilford County so Connor could attend Gateway. Her love and the love of all the staff doesn’t go unnoticed and has an impact on each family individually.”

The Arc of North Carolina is here to help parents like Ms. Dawson, who was nervous at first about the world of disabilities.

Melinda Plue, Director of Advocacy and Chapter Development at The Arc of North Carolina, explains how.

“The Arc is there for new parents (or new to NC parents!). We can connect them with a local chapter, first of all,” said Plue.

“We can explain how to access services in our state,” Plue continued, “which is often confusing and always changing. We can help support them on the journey they will take, no matter what it is.”
The issue of public-separate schools like Gateway Education Center is often debated within the disability community. There are strong arguments and emotions on both sides. Some advocates say that we should focus on including students with disabilities in regular schools and classrooms. Others say that schools like Gateway are still necessary. I did benefit a great deal from my time at the Children’s Center, which now is The Center for Exceptional Children.

On the other hand, I was mainstreamed for most of my education, meaning I attended classes with many of my peers without disabilities. I sympathize with both sides of the debate.

I asked Ms. Ermentrout, PTA president at Gateway Education Center, about her position in the ongoing debate.

“Some children affected by disability and their families feel that their least-restrictive environment is an inclusive setting that includes children of all abilities,” said Ermentrout.

“That should be celebrated and encouraged.” Ermentrout continued. “However, many families with profoundly impacted, and particularly medically impacted, children see separate settings as their children's only chance for independence. At a neighborhood public school, most activities and spaces are set up to accommodate typically developing children. At a separate school, children with disabilities are the sole focus. There is enough training to handle medical emergencies; there is enough understanding to create activities in which all children can participate; there is enough room to fit all the varied pieces of equipment needed and to encourage walking practice and safe exploration. In an ideal world, schools could be built to support and accommodate everyone, but until that happens, many of us are content to remain where are children are safe, loved, and seen.”

I have enjoyed my time as a guest blogger for The Arc of North Carolina. But we all have a lot of advocacy work to do. I encourage all of us to learn from the parents of Gateway who saved their school recently. If we all continue working together, we can make great changes.