A Lesson In Civility For Senator Jeff Sessions

Donald Trump and Sen. Sessions have both made disparaging comments about people with disabilities.
Senator Jeff Sessions in 2009.
Senator Jeff Sessions in 2009.

Donald Trump has selected former Alabama attorney general and current Republican senator, Jeff Sessions, as his pick for U.S. Attorney General. And I have a few things to say about it.

I work in the field of human services. I am the social media and public relations specialist for a private non-profit called George Chambers Resource Center and we support individuals with developmental disabilities. And in the not-so-distant past, Sen. Sessions made claims that integrating students with disabilities into the classroom was a frustration and detriment so intense it was causing “the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”

Alright, then. Let’s talk about civility.

Civility is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a polite act or expression.” And it seems to me that such a polite expression is in direct contrast to Sen. Sessions’ comments about children with disabilities. Not only did he actively refute his own personal belief about conduct in the classroom by making such a statement, he also gave us a prime example of how NOT to talk about people with disabilities.

At our agency, one of the goals we have is to help our local community change the way they interact with and view people with disabilities. Historically, and sadly, the bar is set very low. Despite the number of changes that have been made in society at large since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, we are still incredibly far from where we need to be. Representation for people with disabilities—both visible and invisible—is at an all-time high with the popularity of shows like Switched At Birth, Speechless, and Parenthood, along with programs like the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (PCPID) which “provides advice and assistance to the President...on a broad range of topics that affect people with intellectual disabilities.” One of PCPID’s goals, according to their 2016 report, is to work with “Federal Education Policies and enforcement strategies to end segregation in schools.”

So, you see, Sen. Sessions, you’ve got it backwards.

Donald Trump and Sen. Sessions have both made disparaging comments about people with disabilities, and it’s incredibly frightening. These are men who will hold power and, according to their own words, will work to reduce the already-limited power of those who are differently abled. Perhaps I’ll give Sessions some grace here and assume his comments were made less in reference to actual people and more in reference to policy. Okay, grace offered. But his beliefs about integration being a damage to our nation’s schools and students are dangerous at best. Integration is, and will always be, the solution.

Children are never given enough credit. We assume they know very little, see nothing but what they want, and hear only what is being said. But children are inherently wise, capable of intuiting the smallest nuances in conversation and behavior. And they are not born with prejudices. Those things are learned when their eager questions about the girl who’s nonverbal or the boys who acts out because his attempts to communicate are not being heard are met with downcast eyes and attempts to change the subject. If we would be so brave as to trust in the nature of children, who give so much of themselves without condition, perhaps the classroom experience—for everyone involved—would finally become the positive, inclusive place it should have always been. Because you know what happens when children are segregated? They grow up and become Sen. Sessions.

What would happen if we believed in our children enough to trust that they can interact with their peers who have disabilities? My bet is they would want to help one another in the classroom and no child would be denied an education. Or maybe, instead of creating federal standards like Common Core which stress and frustrate both students and teachers and do absolutely nothing to call out the skills and talents of our next generation, we work to implement policies that nurture the variety of ways in which our children learn.

Sen. Sessions said that integrating classrooms meant “We have children in the classroom we cannot control.”

Well, that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? We want to control them, not teach them. We want to standardize their thinking instead of giving educators some freedom to nurture the varying numbers of personalities under their care. I have a handful of friends who are teachers, and their biggest frustrations are not having differently abled children in their classrooms. Their frustrations are the rising costs of supplies (which teachers are often responsible for), the lack of funding for school programs, and the increasing focus on test results rather than the process—and joy—of learning.

Perhaps it’s time we get rid of those policies.

And, perhaps, Sen. Sessions, you’ll remember the definition of civility next time you meet someone with a disability.