Okay, real quick before we get into our interview with our wonderful friend and inclusion advocate, Charmaine Thaner. How's everybody doing? It was election day in the United States on Tuesday. And let's be honest, it has been a little bit stressful. But I've got a quick fix. Hey Siri. Call 707-873-7862
Calling plus 1-707-873-7862.
OK, check this out.
Hi. Welcome to pep talk a public art project by Westside school [Spanish] Please listen to the following options for encouraging messages.
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My name is Tim Villegas from the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education and you are listening to Think Inclusive, a show where with every conversation, we tried to build bridges between families, educators and disability rights advocates to create a shared understanding of inclusive education and what inclusion looks like in the real world. You can learn more about who we are and what we do at mcie.org. For this episode, I speak with Charmaine Thaner, inclusion advocate, extraordinaire, founder of Collaborative Special Education, Advocacy, and host of the longtime Facebook Live series, The Art of Advocacy. We talk about her journey from being a self contained special education teacher to an inclusion advocate, including her son with Down syndrome, in school, from preschool to college, and in her view, the secret to successful advocacy. Thank you so much for listening. And now, my interview with Charmaine Thaner.
Welcome to the Think Inclusive podcast.
Thank you for having me, Tim. I've been a listener of yours. And so it's a privilege to be able to be on and talk with you.
For those of our audience who maybe don't know you, or your work, would you tell them about yourself and why you started Collaborative Special Education Advocacy.
When I think back when I was 18, I had moved 21 times. So I grew up with change. And change to me was quite the typical activity that happened. So when I look at myself now, I see myself as that change maker. And now I've been looking at inclusive education, Universal Design for Learning, co teaching all of those aspects, and that is the change that I'm hoping that we can bring about quickly in our public education system. But if I go back a little bit further firm when my husband and I were in college, we went to Slippery Rock State College in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. And at that time, it was back in the 70s and we had to have an elementary or secondary endorsement along with special ed. So it's funny because I see so many colleges these days trying to go to that dual enrollment, you know, not dual enrollment, but dual certification. And little did I know that Slippery Rock was leading the way in the 70s by having all our students be general ed teachers first, and then special education teachers. And after graduation, my husband and I got married, we packed up my blue, Plymouth Duster with a car top carrier. And we drove to Colorado, because we figured Colorado would be a wonderful state to live in. And it took me a little bit to find a special ed teaching job in Colorado, because back in the 70s, there weren't that many students in public schools with disabilities. So they were still pretty much all in segregated classes. But my first teaching job came when there was a segregated school that decided to start transitioning students from the segregated school to an elementary building. So I was hired to be that first special ed teacher in the elementary building. And I mean, it was completely self contained. My students were with me all day, unless they went to lunch and recess. That's when they could be with general ed students. They weren't even included for music, art, library, pe those kinds of special classes. So it's interesting when I look back on my career that I started in that self contained classroom. And after a number of years, I transferred and applied for a job and the district where we lived, because I wanted to contribute to our hometown school district. And I was a resource teacher there for a number of years. And, you know, I, I look at all the times I sat in IEP meetings, giving teachers tips on how they could include students. And it was like, I don't know, I have never been a general ed teacher, is all this inclusion stuff really possible. So I decided I would like to transfer to the general ed classroom for at least a couple of years, see if indeed, inclusion was possible. And I did that, and I love the community of a classroom. And so instead of just being a general ed teacher for a couple of years, I was a general ed teacher in elementary school for 15 years. And yes, inclusive education is possible, and co teaching and all of those good things. So it really helped me see that what I had been advocating for, was possible. In the late 80s, our our third child Dylan was born. Dylan has Down syndrome. And so that took us on a whole nother journey, right? Both my husband and I had been special ed teachers. So we knew the law we we knew what was supposed to happen. But to experience the side of the IEP table where you're a parent is really different. I know one of the things I said when Dylan was young is when we were walking in for an IEP meeting, I would always look and see if there was a box of Kleenex because I knew I was going to probably need it sometime in the meeting. And so as a parent, we started that journey, and advocating for Dylan to be included. When he turned three. Unfortunately, we had a disagreement with the school district about what would be the least restrictive environment for preschool. We wound up filing for due process because we wanted Dylan to be able to go to a community preschool and not the special ed preschool. Luckily, we were able to settle that mediation. And Dylan went to the community preschool the district paid his tuition. And not that we couldn't afford the tuition. But we wanted that part of the settlement because we wanted to set that precedent that other parents could be offered the option of their child going to community preschool at no cost. The district also had a early childhood teacher come once a week to the community preschool and touch base and make sure things went well. So as a parent, I know the reality of sitting at that table and being in disagreement. I about whether or not your child is worthy enough to be included. And after I retired from teaching, I decided it would still be I don't know, I guess I thought I would really retire, but that didn't happen. And within a few months, I was doing some contract work. And then I was employed by PEAK Parent Center in Colorado, which is Colorado's Parent Training and Information Center. And I worked at PEAK as an education specialist, which I love, because we got to go, you know, around the state when you still did in person trainings, and do workshops, and such for parents and teachers. And then part of my job also was to, you know, help with the parent advising part of PEAK services. And what I found is, we did an excellent job of how we, kind of walked through, you know, the process, the IEP process with parents that would call in, we could send them, you know, resources and articles and things like that. We would give them suggestions on, you know, these are good questions to make sure you ask at the meeting, like, you know, show me the data, make sure you ask the teachers show me the data. And so, parents were really thankful. But sometimes parents would call us back and say, you know, I had my IEP meeting yesterday. And I said, Show me the data. And they showed it to me, and it didn't make any sense. You know, they were colored lines and dotted lines. And so then I was like, I just kept thinking, we need to be able to have people that can go actually go with the parents to the meetings. So when they need to ask a follow up question, if they're unsure of that, you know, that another person being with them could help. So I decided to go ahead and start my own advocacy business at the time, it was called Visions and Voices Together. And when I moved to Idaho, I don't know about nine years ago or so. We I thought, you know, Visions and Voices Together, I love the name, but it doesn't really say what I do. So I changed it to Collaborative Special Education Advocacy. And my goal is to always bring my perspective as a parent, but also my professional experience of being an educator for 30 years, and blend those perspectives to be able to help parents advocate for their kids. So I think that was a long answer. How did I get started with this?
Oh, that was a great answer. hearing your story, you have a very big view of inclusive education, from many different perspectives a parent, a educator, and an advocate. Was there any point where you said to yourself, I don't know if this is the right thing? I don't know if me advocating for inclusive education is the right thing.
I would say it crossed my mind several times throughout throughout Dylan's education. And the first time was when he was three and we filed for due process. I mean, it was emotionally draining. It was, you know, an impact on our family because I was crabby and irritable. And so I remember talking to my friend Kathy Snow, the author of Disability is Natural. And she lived in the same hometown as as I did, and she would go to meetings with me as support and I would go to meetings with her but I remember vividly standing on the front porch of our house. And I was talking to Kathy and I was like Kathy, I don't know if I can keep doing this. It's it's like I really don't know if I can do this and she was the one that said no, Charmaine, this is right. This is this is what you believe and keep going, keep going. And so, and I was also lucky because I was going through Colorado's Partners and Leadership Program. And so I was hearing speakers like, you know, Norman Kunc and Judith Snow and people like that, that it was like yes, this this is the right path. This is what we need to be doing. And so luckily Dylan was fully included in elementary school. I didn't have as many doubts because the staff was amazing. They had just written a grant to Colorado to get some waivers on kind of the special ed process. So what, what they did and this was like in the early 1990s, at Columbine Elementary was they took staff and look at how can we change their roles, and not just be looked at as lists as a speech and language therapists and Claudia's the gifted and talented teacher, but how can we use our staff and support kids in classrooms without doing pullout. So that was an amazing experience for Dylan to be able to, you know, be in, in our neighborhood elementary school, and that our neighborhood elementary school was being so innovative back in the 90s. And the middle school years, I didn't have any doubts about inclusion being the right thing. It was a little bit harder than the middle school because they hadn't experienced, you know, supporting many students in the classroom with disabilities. And their model was that you spend most of your time in this resource room. And so I knew inclusion was still the way we wanted to go. It was just in middle school, we had to kind of ramp up our advocacy again, in high school, I didn't have any doubts about inclusion, because I had seen other things that don't have experience throughout his years in the district. And he just felt, you know, like he was really welcome that he really belonged. At a say in the early years, sometimes there were some of these things like, I don't know, is this really the right way to go?
Yeah, I wanted your perspective, because a lot of parents are asking that question. And wondering if it's the right thing. And like your story, they've gone through considerable emotional stress. Financial stress, right. And they're going is this worth it? So yeah, so thank you for sharing that. It seems like in the 90s, there was momentum around inclusive education. So you had a he had a bunch of people spending lots of money, including the Federal Government, on initiatives, inclusive education initiatives. And then right around late 90s, early 2000s, it kind of I don't know what happened. But so I guess I'm asking you, did you see that because you also have that big picture. And I didn't start teaching until 2003. So I came in on the the like, like, inclusion? Like, no, Tim, we tried that. We tried that didn't work. We didn't that didn't work. So I'm just I'm curious as your perspective, if that's something that you saw, like the the investment in inclusive education initiatives in the 90s. And then it just kind of petered out in the 2000s. Did you see that?
You know, and I didn't realize that until much later. And then when I look back at, you know, it's like, so how come? We were able to have Dylan fully included from preschool? And actually through college? And why isn't still happening today? You know, so, I mean, when I was involved in advocating for doing when he was younger, that, you know, that was the right path to go on. Those were the values that we had. And it seemed like there was a group of supporters that, you know, were kind of cheering us on, and mentors that I could look to for help. And now, I look and it's like, I am seeing more classrooms where students on paper are included for 80% of the time, and yet they're sitting at a back table with a para doing totally separate work. So those images of Michael Giangreco's island in the mainstream it was like how can this be 2022?And we are seeing this eruption of islands in the mainstream. It's like what we, we already went through that we already know that that wasn't appropriate services for kids. So, at the time, I don't think I realized it. But now Yeah, I can definitely see that upturn and I talk to other parents of adult children. And they have similar stories that for some reason, we kind of caught that inclusion wave and rode it out. For years and years. Yeah, I mean, all along. I look at Dylan graduated from high school in 2007. And ever since third grade, he talked about going to college. And I always was like, you know, in my head, like, yeah, Dylan, like that's gonna happen. And you know, we had college savings for his brother and sister. We had no college savings for Dylan. So, I mean, look at that, what, what message we're sending there. But as he got older, and his brother and sister were talking about going to visit colleges, and you know what they wanted to do, Dylan's goal of going to college became stronger and stronger. And I remember having a conversation with him in high school saying, Dylan, I don't know if we can find a college that will have somebody with Down syndrome go to their college. But Dylan has this kind of magical way of setting goals and, and achieving them. And so when he was a junior, Dylan went on a tour of Pikes Peak Community College where Kathy's son Benjamin was going and Benjamin in his wheelchair, took Dylan around the community college and talked about different things and showed different aspects. And then we also had a college tour setup for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. And Dylan had a female tour guide for that college tour. And so after those two tours, you know, I said to Dylan, so what do you think? Would you like to go to Pikes Peak with Benjamin, would you like to go to UCCS? And he was like, No, I want UCCS. I liked the girls there. And little did I know, my husband picked a college that had better enrollment of females to males, the ratio was higher. So I thought, Uh huh. Dylan, this is how you choose colleges. Um, and so, so that was during his junior year. And so I started making phone calls. And I thought, I'm just going to call the college and not say he has Down syndrome, I'm just going to say, you know, my son wants to come here. And so we started the conversation with like the Disability Studies Office with the register's office, you know, and of course, eventually, I would have to say, well, you know, he does have Down syndrome, but he really has this goal. Well we all you know, every person we talked to, we got like, No, we don't have kids with Down syndrome come to the university, he could check out the community college, that's the community college would be better. Well, luckily, Christi Kasa was working at UCCS. And she still does. And she became this crucial ally for us. And we got an appointment with the Vice Chancellor of the University. So Dylan, and my husband and I, and Christi went and talked to the Vice Chancellor about Dylan being able to come to the university. And I've never forget some of the words he he said to us. He said, you know, Dylan, he said, We are a public university. And we're here to serve the public and the community, and you're part of our community. And he said, I don't want you to be a mascot at the university. And Dylan was like, what's a mascot? So that I think what it was is, you know, we don't want him to be this token. Oh, look, aren't we great. We have this kid with this, you know, Down Syndrome on our campus. And he said, No Dylan. He said, I want you to go to class, I want you to do the work. I want to to be a student that's going to be learning here. And so Dylan was like, Yes, this is what I want to. So with the Vice Chancellors support, though, Dylan was able to audit classes for four years. So he was And, you know, fully admitted, but in 2007, that's like the baby steps we are taking at that time. So for Dylan's Transition Plan, he was not going to go back to high school as a super senior, which is what many of our kids did in the district, where they would go to some high school classes in the morning, and then do some, you know, community work or job shadowing, Dylan wanted to go to college. So what we did for his transition plan was the district provided transportation down the mountain to the university, they provided a para that went to classes with Dylan, especially at the beginning of the semester, and then she faded. But what we found it was funny is like, she was really there more to help the professor feel comfortable. And so those those were his transition services. He didn't, you know, he worked for graduation didn't take the diploma. And so, yeah, we've looked at the, you know, all of his education and, and how it's been inclusive. And it's really disappointing when I work with families now. And I don't see those options and opportunities in it. It looks, you know, like we've reversed and are in our ways of educating people instead of continuing to make progress with them.
What if you don't mind me asking, what what is Dylan doing now? Now that he's post-college?
Yes, good question. So he's renting a house with two other gentlemen that have disabilities, he receives staff support. So they, you know, the staff can drive them to the grocery store, where Dylan lives, there's no like city bus transportation. And he was working as as a host at a Red Robin restaurant before COVID. And he loved that. The other thing that I find with adulthood is it's really, it's second, another whole battle for inclusive activities. You know, he the staff that is hired to an agency, they provide different activities, you know, like a cooking class or an art class, but they're all segregated activities. And it's like, this was like, so foreign to Dylan, because that's not what his experience was like in school. And so it gets even harder, I think, as doing gets older, because now he's 33. And most 33 year olds are married with kids have a life. And so it's not as easy to make connections and friendships. So that's, that's like, an a whole nother frontier for inclusive communities, you know?
Yeah, it's, it's the, it's the extension of, of what we want for our kids through through schooling, and then to have the community being inclusive. You know, so it's, it's the whole life. A lifetime of inclusion. Right.
Right. Right. And that's the thing, I think, you know, now there's so many more post secondary opportunities for disabled students. And, you know, I think that came from other parents that we're seeing the success of inclusion, you know, during, you know, pre K through senior year, and then wanting more for after high school, ever since, you know, 1975 or before that, when you saw that grassroots parent advocacy with some disability organizations, and that collective advocacy made those huge changes. And I think that's what we continue to see. Now, what is different is it's not just parents and disability organizations, but it's self advocates, right? Their voice is now at the table. And it's also educators. There are so many educators around the country that are proponents of inclusive education. And so we have the opportunity to really widen our circle of allies and bring all those voices to the table to make change. And that's my hope. Is that how For a group can continue to make changes in public education and in our communities.
I see what you're seeing, you know, I see that there are dedicated and committed parents who are advocating for inclusive education. And I know a lot of educators who are speaking out that they want inclusive education to be the expectation in the United States. So what do you think is the next step in this journey?
Well, I think it's continued conversations and continued building relationships. You know, one of the things that I had said a long time ago was the three R's of advocacy are relationships, relationships, relationships. And I think as parents, when we look at our kids, and we are wanting them, to have relationships with classmates, and the importance of getting to know each other, and that is like that first step of building relationships. And I look at as parents, we also have to look at our relationships with staff as being really critical. And that's going to start in those same baby steps of getting to know the staff. And, you know, I think of like, I don't know, it might sound like silly little things, but it's talking to the teacher and finding things out, like, Oh, you have the same favorite restaurant in town, or you can't believe that, you know, your sister, brother, their sister went to high school together, or whatever. But those little pieces of information that help you know, that teacher as a person makes a huge difference. When the teacher gets to know your family, as a family, I think teachers put even a little bit more extra effort into the families that they're connected with. And so we need to make sure that that's happening with all the families, and not just the families that have the time and the education, and maybe the cultural competencies and privileges, that white middle class people like myself have, right, and so I really am looking at how we can develop relationships between families and educators. And also look at the other marginalized students and families in that classroom and in the building, and what we can do to develop those relationships. And so I think it's conversations, it's it's relationships, it's it's looking at examples, like the school districts that the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education has been working with, to show people what's really possible.
Thanks for the plug. I swear, I didn't pay her to say that.
You can send a check to--no.
Do you ever think that advocacy can cross a line? I'm hearing you talking about relationships. But I'm not hearing you talk about being adversarial or shouting people down? Or shaming? So you know, I don't know, if you have an example. It's fine. It's find if you don't.
And I mean, I, I look at myself, there's been times in IEP meetings, and especially when I was first beginning advocacy, where I was shouting with the special ed director. And, you know, so I have behaviors and examples when I was not that stellar collaborative person. So that happens. And I mean, as an advocate, I really only get parents calling me when communication is broken down when trust is broken down. And so that is another challenge because it's like, so I'm coming into a situation where there's been a lot of tension. There's been a lot of arguing before meetings. And so like, you know, here I am, it's like, okay, so how are we going to be collaborative? And it's hard because parents expect when they hire an advocate, I think a lot of times that the advocate is going to be this You know, pretty assertive person. And that's not what needs to happen every time. On the other hand, I also, you know, help parents right state complaints and go to mediation with them. So I know that it can get to the point where we're not going to do this collaboratively, we're going to have to look at some, you know, other options for this dispute resolution. And, you know, I think, yeah, I mean, parents are emotionally involved, because it's their own child, that I rarely see what I would say crossing the line from parents, I see it as them being persistent with their advocacy. So yeah, but that all of that happens during the IEP meetings, right? When, when there's such a misalignment between values, and that's something that takes a lot of time. And parents, as you know, looking at your children, you don't have a lot of time for systemic change to kick in. And so you have to be really persistent, you know, throughout each school year.
When would you tell a family to ask for help?
Well, I think when you begin doing as much as you can, and you know, you're still not getting the results in the outcome that you want for your child, then it's time to do something different. And sometimes that means bringing someone with you to the meeting, not necessarily a professional advocate, it can be a neighbor that comes with you, you can be tapping into the resources that your Parent Training and Information Centers, and talking to parent advisors there. A lot of local ARCs have advocates that parents can use. But I think when you are seeing that, you know, you're not making any progress with what you've been trying, then, like anything else, right, we got to, we got to switch up what we're trying and try a different strategy. So I offer parents a 30 minute phone consultation, and sometimes, you know, it's like, I can give some ideas and they can run with it. And then other times, it's like, no, we really want you to be with this at the meeting, we really want you to be reading the IEPs and giving us feedback of you know, something needs to be changed. So yeah, and I, you know, most parents can't afford an advocate. So we have to look at that. And that point of view that we have. And that's one of the reasons why I started my weekly Facebook Live shows was to provide free advice and strategies for families and educators. So that, you know, financial burden isn't there and they can still get some, you know, help and resources.
Yeah, I'm glad so I'm glad you brought that up. And so tell us it's every Thursday, right? Rarely do you miss, and what partic-- what what time is that?
So it's at noon, Mountain Time. And I always give Mountain Time first because usually we think of Eastern Time setting the standard, but no, I'm here to speak up for the Mountain States.
I like it.
So we've been at Mountain I mean, some people don't even know there's a Mountain Time. You know, timezone but so yeah, noon Mountain Time. And so that makes it two o'clock Eastern Time. But you know, 11 o'clock Pacific. So I tried to pick a time around lunches. So if some people could, you know, use that as their lunch time, that would be a way to access it. You know, it's hard because I use I think when I first started I was doing it in the evening. But then evenings are hard for families. So yeah, but yeah, we've had 223 shows.
Oh my gosh. Wow. Wow.
I've been doing a weekly show for a while.
Well, that that is impressive. That is impressive. And congratulations on that. Hopefully we'll keep on going keep on going and you have a you have a wide variety of guests. I was looking back at just your Facebook feed and I was like wow you know you have educators you have disabled advocates sometimes you fly slow solo, right?
Yeah. So I mean I mean, I'm clapping.
I know it's, yeah, it's a commitment. And I've, I've found that it you know, a lot of people are saying how valuable it is. So I can continue to do that. But yeah, I tried to mix things up, usually once a month, we have a Q&A show. So, you know, the parents and teachers that our viewers can decide on what the topic is that we talked about, and I can answer specific questions, I try to do at least one or two solo shows where I, you know, do a training on a topic, that seems like a lot of people are interested at that time. And then I've, you know, made a lot of connections and have mentors like, Dr. Paula Kluth. And we've had Ross Greene, on our show, and so some big names, and then also some disability advocates that might not be known to everyone, but that have an important message. Stephen Hinkle has been on our show a couple of times. Cal Montgomery, who I recently had on as a guest is like an exceptional person for us to learn from different people that have continued to help me push my thinking. And, and for me to recognize where I've been, you know, an ableist in I've had ableism, you know, kind of conditioned. And so now, I feel like I'm trying to decondition a lot of that. I'm still evolving.
We all are, we all are. And I really, I appreciate you being so candid, you know, that's something that, you know, I, I relate to that, you know, I I definitely have, you know, in this whole discussion of anti racism and anti ableism you know, I recognize the the racist and ableist thoughts that have that, you know, are inside of me, and we're constantly trying to do better. Right.
Right. Oh, exactly.
Yeah. All right. One last question. Before we sign off, I see you have a magic wand.
So let's get that magic wand out. And imagine you were advising the Secretary of Education. Miguel Cardona. What would you advise them to focus on if you were advising them?
Well, you know, this is such an interesting question. Because, you know, if you look at the United States Secretary of Education, they really can't afford to just focus on one thing, right. And very pleased that we have a different Secretary of Education, and one that is more in line with the values and the beliefs of inclusive education. And, you know, I think we have an excellent opportunity to make even further advancements and have the Federal Department of Ed support. I look at issues like ending seclusion and restraint. You know, when I just did a show, I just did a show about school boards and how we have to have this collective, you know, advocacy and what we can do at the school board level. And I thought, you know, I need to get back involved in the school district where I live. Without kids in the district, you feel a little more at the side. But speaking of seclusion and restraint, what I thought about the other day with my school district where I live now, it's every time it's built, a school is built in my district, there's a seclusion room, in that plan. And then in that building, and I thought, Charmaine, this is something that you need to be looking at and how I can start a group of parents to look at changing that. So from a federal level, if we had more guidance and support to end seclusion and restraint, that would be exceptional. Of course, I would like the Secretary to, you know, continue to look at things like universal design for learning and how it's written in some of the laws that we have for education, but we don't see it implemented with fidelity that much yet in our schools. I would like the Secretary to focus on how we can expand inclusive education to be a conversation that goes beyond special education, because there are so many marginalized students in our classrooms that we can't keep seeing this as a special education issue. This is a general education initiative that we need to make these systemic changes. So, you know, and then I would just love to have lunch with him and listen to him and, and hear his perspectives on things now that he's, you know, on this federal level. So, as you know, families and educators, it's hard for us to know what happens on the federal level. But that's also an important way that we can be more policy advocates. That's when we get, you know, involved at that level. So, yeah, I wish him well. And I know, I should see if I could get him to be a guest on my show.
I was just thinking that I was just thinking that.
Do you have any connections for me?
I wish I wish. Charmaine Thaner thank you so much for being on the Think Inclusive podcast. It was an absolute pleasure.
Thanks, Tim. It was great. And I I appreciate the I don't know the support that you give your guests cuz I felt like we were just having a conversation and it wasn't something stressful, which I was worried about. So thank you for making my experience as a guest being delightful and I appreciate the work that you're doing and that you continue to do so it's exciting.
Think Inclusive is written, edited and sound designed by Tim Villegas and is a production of MCIE. Original Music by Mile Kredich. If you enjoyed today's episode, here are some ways that you can help our podcast grow. Share it with your friends, family and colleagues. And if you haven't already, give us a five star review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Special thanks to our patrons Melissa H., Sonya A., Pamela P., Mark C., Kathy B., Kathleen T., Jarett T., Gabby M., Erin P., and Paula W. for their support of Think Inclusive. For more information about inclusive education or to learn how MCIE can partner with you and your school or district. Visit mcie.org. We will be back in a couple of weeks. Thanks for your time and attention. And remember, inclusion always works