RICHFIELD, Ohio — Joey Towell entered second grade at Richfield Elementary School prepared.
A week before school started, he and his mom, Jen Towell, gave his teachers a letter to distribute to all his classmates so they could get to know him a little better. And on the first day of school, he passed out résumés to teachers, aides, custodians, cafeteria workers and his bus driver.
As schools increasingly look to integrate students of all abilities, the Towell family has been taking extra steps to help Joey’s classmates understand his Down syndrome and other special needs.
“We wanted kids to know that he’s more like them than he is different,” Towell said.
Towell said when the family moved to Bath three years ago, they were looking for a way to help others get to know Joey as he started preschool.
Joey spends about 60 percent of the day in the school resource room learning with small groups of kids with disabilities. The other 40 percent of his day is spent in an integrated classroom with his typical peers.
When Joey was in preschool, Towell came up with the idea to make a book about him to give to teachers as an “easy way to digest” his medical and social history, as well as the different therapies he goes through.
The book quickly evolved into other ways to inform others about Joey.
On national days designated to raise awareness about special needs or Down syndrome, the Towells would bring in bracelets or T-shirts to bring them recognition.
Kathy Wise, Joey’s kindergarten teacher at Richfield Elementary School, said the book helped her not just the first day, but also throughout the year when she would need conversation points to help Joey understand something.
And the family’s awareness initiatives also helped all the kids in the room learn more about Down syndrome — especially with Joey as the ambassador.
“It was good for the other children, because they all liked Joey, so it gave Down syndrome a positive ring,” Wise said. “It puts him forefront, too, as a leader in the class.”
Each year, Towell tweaks how she introduces Joey to teachers and the class.
Last year, she decided to condense the book into a résumé that outlines Joey’s strengths, “what works” when communicating with him, his health and wellness, his interests and what skills he’s working on. It helps teachers understand what he can do beyond his individualized education program, Towell said.
“We wanted to make an accessible résumé to express his best attributes and really kind of put him in a positive light,” she added.
This year, Joey’s mom also wrote a letter to Joey’s peers explaining what Down syndrome is, how it affects him and the best ways to interact with him.
“Having Down syndrome sometimes means it takes Joey a little longer to do something in class or to get in line. However, having Down syndrome does not mean that Joey doesn’t understand what you are saying,” Towell wrote.
Though Joey has been in school just a few days, the note seems to be working already. After his first day of school, Joey said he had already made some new friends.
Research shows that inclusive education, or “mainstreaming,” provides benefits to both the special and regular education students.
It gives students with varying talents and abilities opportunities to collaborate with and learn from one another, said Katrina Lindsay, a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“Mainstreaming has become an essential component to public education today,” Lindsay added. “It reiterates that children have much more in common than their differences.”
Proactive efforts from parents like the Towells can make inclusion easier for kids.
Lindsay said there are other nontraditional ways to create a smooth transition beyond a resume. Some of her clients with special needs create PowerPoint presentations about their conditions that they present to the class. Others have designed a business card with brief information about their medical diagnoses or a list of interests.
While sending kids with special needs off to an inclusive educational environment — or to school in general — can be nerve-racking for parents, those nontraditional methods can help put them at ease, too.
“We find that Joey really thrives” in general education environments, Towell said. “If we hold him to a high standard, he really can meet and even exceed what we think he can do.”