Natural Inclusion

I am an inclusionist! It seems to me this has always been so. Long before I had children with special needs, the notion of inclusion was an integral part of my life and who I am… The way, I think, it should be for everyone!

I’m sure I’m a better person for it and research shows inclusion benefits everyone — the children with and without special needs.

You see, I grew up naturally exposed to people with disabilities though none were in my immediate family. Not a single one of these people were ever singled out as any different from the rest of us. I had a good friend, Alex Mahoney, who had Cerebral Palsy, though I didn’t really know it, then. I just thought he had trouble walking and talking. I remember playing with the giant therapy ball when his PT visited his house. In hindsight, his little brother Vinny, who played with us constantly, had a learning disability and speech delay. I remember he had cool blocks with straps attached to the pedals of his bicycle so he could keep up with us on a ride. My dear friends and neighbors, Alison and Kellie, had Aunt Carol who lived with them and played tea party with us. She had developmental delays. Uncle Stevie, my cousin’s uncle, played countless games of cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers with us. He was a good shot and an amazing artist! I learned only much later that he’d become mentally disabled as a young adult. One of my “babysitting” jobs was as a companion to Johnny, who also had Cerebral Palsy. He and I maneuvered his motorized wheelchair through many a narrow store door so we could shop around like everyone else. It never occurred to me not to take him to any store or any place he wanted to go. Why would it? My mom played guitar gigs and often took us with her. I visited many a veteran’s hospital and talked to countless wounded soldiers — some who were significantly disabled and some who were barely injured. I played, danced and talked with them all indiscriminately. Years later, my mother married a man who happened to have Cerebral Palsy. He was and always has been Richie! No more, no less.

Yes, I have lived my whole life in an inclusionary world despite the systemic segregation our society has implemented for over a hundred years. I don’t suppose my parents purposefully orchestrated it to be so… but I am grateful that it’s the way I grew up. Because now that I have my own children with special needs – two with Down syndrome and one with ADD – I know inherently how inclusion works… And, my opinion is strongly supported by the research… correctly implemented, INCLUSION DOES WORK!

Of course I want my kids to do whatever the other kids are doing if they so choose! I want the same opportunities in education, employment, community, friendship, summer camp, grocery and clothes shopping, eating out at the diner… I mean everything! And, why shouldn’t that be so? An extra 21st chromosome does not preclude My Boys from eating at the diner, buying shorts at Kohls, playing with Nicholas or Jake or Katie, taking swim lessons at the local pool, going to Marine Shark Camp with their friends, OR going to school down the block…. just as they would if there was not that tiny-little extra piece of DNA! The difference in My Children doing these things and someone else’s child doing them is the potential need for extra support. And, I’ve come to realize, there are LOTS of kids out there without any extra DNA that need more extra support than My Beautiful Boys do.

The problem with inclusion isn’t inclusion, it’s the practice of inclusion, or the lack of that much-needed support without which inclusion is tough to implement. And, if it’s too tough to implement, the teachers – who are the individuals responsible for making it work – quit trying. Their battle cry sounds something like this, “it’s a nice thought but it doesn’t work!” Or this, “that child doesn’t belong in my class!” Or this, “He/she just needs more help than I can give him/her.” And, sadly, I’ve even heard, “That’s not my problem. He’s not my student.” When the teacher quits – instead of embracing inclusion like The Boys’ wonderful Mrs. Lines this year – we slide back down that slippery slope into a segregated world where the children with special needs are held separate and apart from the rest of the world, and the children without special needs never get the chance to understand that children with special needs are people just like everyone else. They’re boys and girls and children and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and moms and dads… people who happen to be slightly different in their own unique way… just like the rest of us.

Bullying is the act of punishing someone for being different. Being different isn’t something that should be punished through segregation or separation. And bullying is on the rise… perhaps as a function of the lack of exposure to people who are different from us. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s intolerance. Perhaps it’s because we segregate instead of include! It is natural to fear what we do not know or understand. Sadly, segregation in our schools fosters the lack of understanding by focusing on the differences. We are all more alike than different, and everyone is inherently different in one way or another. Some kids are intellectually gifted and some need extra help to get through school. Some kids are tall, some short. Some are thin, some are not. Skin comes in all different shades, as do eyes and hair color. Accents vary from family to family, region to region, country to country. The world is a bell curve under which we ALL must live together. We cannot cut off either end of the bell to suit most of us. There’s just no reason to do so. It’s not as though there isn’t enough room under the bell for the few children hanging out at either end. The bell curve is a representation of life that encompasses the “norm” as well as the outliers, not a method to identify and divide those that are different from the majority. I will not allow My Children to be excluded because they’re a bit different.

The key to acceptance is exposure to people who are different from us. And the way to increase exposure is through inclusion. And the way to successfully implement inclusion is to provide appropriate support to the people – the teachers and aides and employers who are responsible for making it work.

Read more from Maggie and about The Boys’ first grade inclusive placement on Take a Walk on the Happy Side.

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