My name is Cheryl Hall and I have been an inclusive special educator for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in Catholic High Schools for a long time. My heart is full of joy from working with these students. I started an inclusion program at my parish many years ago when my son Shaun was young, and I was told they had no Religious Education Classes for him with his Kindergarten aged peers because they weren’t “prepared” to work with children like him. (Shaun had multiple disabilities, including IDD, from the results of brain surgery to remove a large brain tumor when he was an infant.) I was determined that I was going to teach the teachers and the other people in my parish how to work with our children who learn differently. The parishioners at our church were our extended family and they needed to accept, love, and cherish our children with IDD, not avoid them. Advocating for our friends and loved ones with disabilities was what I felt I was called to do with my life.
In many ways and venues, I have learned how to work with teachers and administration in schools so they would accept our children as they are, and where they are academically, so that we all benefit from having the privilege of working with them. When I worked at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, I started an inclusive program for young men with IDD. All of my students had Down syndrome. There were those who were uncomfortable with these students, and a few naysayers that thought this was not going to work. I went to the regular academic classrooms with my students so that I could assist them in taking notes, helping them understand the material, and/or modify material, homework, and tests. They were exposed to everything that a typical High School student experiences. We also worked at jobs in the school and went out in the community a few times a week for about an hour and a half, to help them learn appropriate work and social skills. The boys thrived.
I cannot express enough how much richer my life, the other teachers, students, and people we worked with, received from being with them, teaching them, and socializing with them. I remember quite distinctly many students coming up and thanking me for letting my students with Down syndrome be included and part of the school. Some even said it was the best thing about the school. Every time I cried with joy. I remember one young man with Down syndrome came up to our school president, who was dying from cancer, and the student put his arm around him and asked the president if he was okay. The president spoke to all the staff about how touched he was that this student cared. Of course, every day wasn’t roses, but I believe all the teachers, staff and other students came to be better people because they actually interacted with these students with DS and saw that they were real people with feelings, and needed to be respected like everyone else. I am now working at Seton Keough High School and have had the honor of working with the girls. It is definitely different, but a joy just the same. The boys and girl have united us as schools and taught us all more about humanity, humility, compassion, bravery, and honor than any textbook ever could!
About the Author: Cheryl Hall has been working with and for persons with developmental disabilities and their families for over 25 years. She is married to her husband David for over 37 years and they have had three sons: Jeremy, Shaun, and Stephen. David and Cheryl’s life changed dramatically 30 years ago when their son Shaun was born with a large benign brain tumor; brain surgery at four months of age left him with multiple disabilities. Cheryl became an advocate for him and all their “friends” with developmental disabilities. She started an inclusive religious education program at their parish home and other parishes, worked in Baltimore City teaching respite care to teens and adults, directed a nonprofit ministry for the Catholic Church called the National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry (NAFIM), and directed advocacy programs for the Arc of Maryland. Sadly, Shaun died in 2000; Cheryl and her family had to continue their advocacy without their sweet boy beside them. Since then Cheryl has started two inclusive education programs in Baltimore City, first at Mount Saint Joseph High School for young men and currently at Seton Keough High School for young ladies.