Thank You to The One School That Found a Way to Include My Son


“Our entire sixth grade class is going to Six Flags for the end of the year trip.”

A familiar feeling of anxiety overwhelmed me. I wasn’t concerned about the venue. I believe that 11-year-olds deserve plain, simple fun after a year of hard work. I had no concerns for their safety. I am not an overprotective, helicopter parent.

My anxiety stemmed from the fear that the school wouldn’t agree to take my son Amit. Once again, his excitement would be quickly transformed into disappointment, frustration, and anger.

I glanced at him, sitting in his wheelchair just seven weeks post-amputation, his eyes shining with excitement and I slowly relaxed, knowing that this time would indeed be different. After 11 years of fighting for full inclusion in Israel and America, in August 2013 Amit and I found the school that won’t leave him behind. The REALM Charter School in Berkeley is an educational oasis of inclusion and differentiation that truly sees each child.

Amit was born with a rare orthopedic condition and spent his first 11 years wearing various orthotic devices, casts, crutches and wheelchairs. My first exposure to the exclusion that accompanies disability occurred just before his first birthday. I overheard a group of mothers in our little town talking about how it wouldn’t be a good idea for us to join their daycare cooperative because Amit would be excessively high maintenance, “steal attention” from their children. In early elementary school he sat out of both organized and spontaneously planned activities. His second grade teacher insisted that sitting out the annual bicycle rally was no big deal and there was no need to find a way to include him–after all, some of the “regular” kids did not want to ride either. However, Amit very much wanted to ride but couldn’t. All my attempts to find some way to include him in the full day festival didn’t yield any substantial results.

Year after year, grade after grade, school after school, Amit watched from the sidelines while his friends played–at field days, on school trips, at special events, during gym class, and at recess. Not surprisingly, his physical limitations coupled with systematic exclusion affected both his academic performance and behavior. I was an active advocate, but I rarely accomplished meaningful change within the rigid educational frameworks.

In August 2013, Amit entered the sixth grade at the REALM Charter School and within two months my kid was thriving. For the first time, from the top down–administrators, teachers, counselors, and classmates made sure that Amit was included. He learned to play trombone and danced with his friends–on crutches and in his wheelchair. In one year, his reading skills jumped four levels. His behavioral setbacks decreased and today are a non-issue.

In April, Amit underwent a Syme’s amputation of his right leg at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Sacramento. Last week, he joined his classmates on a field trip to an amusement park. Twelve hours later, tired but happy, he declared, “This was one tough year, but it was also the best year of my life.”

It took a small charter school with a big vision to demonstrate that successful inclusion of children with disabilities is very possible.

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Zimra Vigoda

Zimra Vigoda is Director of Resource Development at an Israeli nonprofit AJEEC-NISPED. Born in Budapest and raised in New York, Zimra immigrated to Israel in 1994. She and her husband David have 4 children, ages 8-17. Prompted by her 13-year old son Amit’s orthopedic impairment, Zimra is involved in special needs advocacy in Israel. Zimra spent the past three years in the Berkeley area with her family. Today, she and her family are living in the Negev region of Israel.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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