Several months ago, one of my daughters came home concerned about her youngest sister, who has Down syndrome and spends part of her day in the special education classroom. 

“Mom, did you know the kids from Miss Turner’s* class are made to clean the cafeteria?”

I knew my daughter and her classmates worked on “life skills,” but I did not know cleaning the cafeteria was part of it. The truth is, I never asked what “life skills” entailed. That was my mistake and I take full responsibility. I knew this class included cooking, learning monetary transactions, learning job related tasks, but I didn’t know it also meant she was wiping tables and stocking shelves with chips and other snacks. 

I was planning on talking to Miss Turner about this, but when I asked my daughter how she felt about cleaning the cafeteria she said, “I really like it mom. I have fun with my friends.” 

I am a parent who respects what my child has to say, and I do not want to take away something she enjoys doing with her classmates. I am positive what she enjoys is the social aspect of it, and I believe those positive social interactions are super important in school, especially when friendships can be so hard for our kids.

Related: An Inclusive Education Does Not Always Mean Friendships for Our Kids with Disabilities

Our kids begin to work on “life skills” early on because they may need more time to learn and practice these skills. Depending on the school, for some of our kids with intellectual disabilities this is part of their curriculum as soon as they begin middle school. 

On the positive side, when it comes to wiping tables, it is not “free labor.” The kids get paid every month for their work  and they can use their earnings to buy an assortment of “things” the teacher provides. However, I do not believe they are being taught to save money or “pay bills,” so the system is flawed. 

I don’t mind my child cleaning the cafeteria, but I do dislike and question the why of this task. Why are our kids so often being “trained” or “delegated” to food service? Specifically the shelving and cleaning up? This is not exclusive to our school — many “life skills” programs follow this line of work. It means schools across the nation are training our kids to wipe tables, as if this was the only job they were capable of. And this is the part I don’t like, because why is my kid not being taught the skills required to do other types of jobs?

I believe this is a direct reflection of where our society and education system are at in their disability attitudes. It says, “You can go this far, and this far only, so we will make sure you get this bit done really well.” And I reject that mindset. Nobody knows how far my kid can go, but if the highest expectation on her is to wipe tables, then we have already put a limit on her potential. I know with the right training and practice she can accomplish more. With the right supports, all our kids can accomplish more. 

What is also concerning is the “othering” that results from the student body seeing their disabled classmates as the individuals who clean up after them. The “service” people. This is going to directly impact friendships and relationships. I believe this is a contributing reason for why unemployment is so high for people with disabilities — the people doing the hiring have only seen our kids wiping tables and stocking shelves. 

It’s time things change. “Life skills” needs to be more. 

I want “life skills” to mean my daughter is spending time in the library, learning how to help students check out books, return books to the right shelves, and learn about the different genres and sections.

I want “life skills” to happen in the office, where my child can learn some secretarial work. Answering phones, filing paperwork, sorting mail and memos, or making photocopies.

I want “life skills” to happen in the classroom as a teacher assistant. Handing out worksheets, entering grades, or helping organize school supplies.

I want “life skills” to be more creative. 

I want “life skills” to push my kid to be everything she can be. 

Related: 7 Things I Want for My Children With Disabilities

And if at the end of the day when my daughter is grown up she ends up wiping tables, we are going to be okay with that. But we are not going to be okay with that if it is a direct result of limitations placed on her by others.

We are talking about the education and training kids with disabilities deserve in order to become fully functioning members of society. It’s time “life skills” training programs step up. Our kids deserve better. They deserve more. 

*Teacher’s name was changed to protect her privacy.

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