Inclusion doesn’t need to be earned. I’ll say it again: Inclusion doesn’t need to be earned. Every person, regardless of neurotype, disability, communication preferences, or sensory needs has a right to be a part of their community.
I’ve heard educators say that they believe in inclusion but “behaviors” are a barrier and need to be extinguished so a child can be included with their peers. Alarm bells start sounding in my head. There’s no “inclusion except for that loud, stimmy child who won’t sit still at the table”. That is still segregation. It’s not “inclusion for ALL” if some of the kids are still made to earn the right to be included. I’m genuinely astonished when professionals juxtapose a pro-inclusion system with one that demands that students meet certain behavioral criteria first before being permitted to learn alongside their peers.
Inclusion is not something a student earns by fitting into a perfect mold of neurotypical behavior. Inclusion isn’t something shiny that you’ll get if you can just stop stimming so much, getting frustrated so easily, having sensory meltdowns, etc.
What I hear when people say things like this is that my child is not permitted to be a part of his community. That he needs to be kept hidden away so he doesn’t disturb or disrupt his peers and teachers. Rather than devising a way to meet his needs and help him access his education, people want to compliance-train him into a quieter, more still child who will sit on the rug nicely, not vocalize, and not rock back and forth if he is to be taught alongside his peers.
But that wouldn’t be authentically HIM. He’s been rocking back and forth and making happy sounds since he was able to sit up. Before that, he kicked his legs or jumped in the jumperoo non-stop. Even in utero he moved so much that my stomach looked like there was a space invasion happening. This is how his body moves. How it *needs* to move. There is no compromising possible here.
The pervasive idea that people need to behave “normally” is a problem because it furthers ableism and the view of disabled people as “other” and “less than”. When you keep children with disabilities segregated and hidden away in separate classrooms, peers don’t learn that it’s okay to be different and to think and communicate differently. They miss out on chances for friendship and understanding and kindness.
And not just the pitying “be nice to them because their life is tragic” or “be Tommy’s helper because he doesn’t know any better” type of kindness. The genuine reciprocal friendship and respect type of kindness.
Without true inclusion, peers won’t learn HOW to talk with and interact with people who communicate differently. No one is showing them what to do to navigate social situations that might arise or how to make recess games and activities accessible to all of the students.
If kids are only catching a glimpse of my son at lunch or on the playground, they aren’t seeing him making insightful comments with his communication device or talking all about the dwarf planets or making hilarious jokes. Lunch and recess are exciting and fun and are times when he doesn’t choose to use his communication device. Will the other kids make assumptions that he doesn’t understand what anyone is saying and isn’t paying attention or is “in his own world”? If they only get to see him from afar and don’t get to have genuine interactions across all settings, this is the likely outcome.
My little second grader is going to grow up. If he grows up segregated from peers because he hasn’t “earned” the right to be together alongside them, how will he be a part of this community? Our disabled children need to be included in schools and treated as valuable members of the school community, just like every other child.
I take my child out in public. We go grocery shopping, to the town carnival, to the playground, to sensory-friendly activities nearby, and more. We are out in the community to the extent that we can be right now, given our children’s ages and abilities to handle outings. It would be lovely if people in the community knew us and knew our son and the other children in town knew who he was and what his story is. Alternatively, they will stare, comment and mimic behind his back, pity, or think of him as strange or tragic. This is not acceptable. He’s a fabulous, funny, smart, kind boy and the community will be better off with him as a valued part of it!
Inclusion doesn’t need to be earned. The goal cannot be to extinguish parts of a child that differ from the norm and don’t fit into the mold of compliant, quiet, table-ready learner. The stakes are too high.
*A note to those who know us personally – this was written over a year ago and never published so is not a direct response to any current situation.*