In the opening moments of the documentary Forget Me Not, we see the shocking live footage from Geraldo Rivera's expose on the New York school of Willowbrook. The students there were all mentally disabled and their treatment of them is appalling. Many of them are writhing on the floor naked with no supervision visible. This is how we treated those with Down Syndrome and other mental disabilities at one time in America. The not-so-distant past is used as a springboard for a deeply personal story of a family trying to fight for their son to be allowed into an integrated classroom.
This illuminating documentary explores the systems in place in America's education system, more specifically New York City's, and how difficult it is to get a child with Down Syndrome into a regular elementary school. Despite many studies showing students do better in these environments, there is a pervasive practice of segregating them into smaller classrooms with other students with mental disabilities.
Oliver Bernier likely just wanted to capture the birth of this son. He also captures the moment when they find out young Emilio has Down Syndrome. As Emilio grows up and gets ready to enter elementary school, the Berneirs are faced with an extreme amount of resistance in allowing Emilio to go to an integrated school where he would learn with students with and without disabilities. The documentary focuses on Hilda, Emilio's mother, and her dedication to trying to give her son the best opportunity to succeed. In the process, we learn a great deal about how broken the education system is in giving students with disabilities a fair shot. Too often they are segregated and the problem with this is that the students are then surrounded by other learners with similar barriors to conquer.
Forget Me Not focuses on the New York City public system and includes the stories of two other students in additon to Emilio's. You can understand the thought process the education system has in putting these children into smaller classrooms where they would get more attention. However, Bernier shows us why that thinking and approach actual hinders progress. By being seperated from the rest of their peers, they aren't challenged in the same ways and they aren't allowed to be exposed to peers who model behavior. Relating this to Emilio, who has speech troubles, being around students who have strong communication skills would be beneficial to his development.
Benier returns to Willowbrook later in the film to remind us that it wasn't too long ago that we just pushed children with disabilities into large hospital rooms. He interviews experts that point out that if any other social group were still segegrated there would be public outrage. It can feel like the Down Syndrome community doesn't have a voice to fight for themselves.
At the center of the film is the Berniers, a loving couple who are resolute in giving their son the best chance at success. It is a deeply personal story and told candidly. They consult with advocates, visit inclusive schools, and push back on the system that wants to exclude Emilio from a normal education. We root for them and are emotionally involved in their struggle. This emotional connection makes the political elements all the more humane. It is hard not to be frustrated alongside the Berniers.
Forget Me Not is an informative and inspiring documentary. It clearly makes the argument that disabled children thrive in itegrated settings with other children. There is no question that this is the correct approach but the systems at play favor segregation.
Even as the Berniers lose important battles, the film feels hopeful. I hope it is only a matter of time before things change. The film shows the injustices in a powerful, long-standing system but never loses the sense that a fight may change things.