What is the one thing you wish for your kids as they grow up? For most people it’s simply that they are happy. What makes you happy? For most of us It’s not money or things or academic achievement, it’s connection, friendships and meaningful relationships. This goes right to the heart of why inclusion is so important for all of us. Everyone wants to belong, to be included, to be valued simply for being themselves.
So here are 10 things I want you to know about inclusion
It doesn’t mean simply being in the same place. For instance, it’s not inclusive to just be physically in the same school, classroom or office, it means being supported to be as fully involved in whatever activity is taking place as the person is able and happy to be. In the case of a school, it might mean having an assistant to help, it might mean changing the set up of a classroom or of a meeting room, moving some desks, removing some chairs, it might mean installing a changing place, it means making sure that there is easy access not just to the building but within the building. It means problem-solving and thinking about how to make things work rather than reasons why they can’t work.
It’s not always about money, it starts with attitude. Without the desire to include everyone and the understanding of why inclusion is a necessary human right then no matter how much money you throw at it, it’s never going to work. In many circumstances, it’s free to make sure someone is fully included not just present. I’m not going to say money isn’t necessary, obviously, it is but it’s not the driving factor and can never be used as an excuse not to include all. Emptying the disabled toilet of the rubbish that is stored in it is an easy example. Making sure that there is enough space for a wheelchair to move around the space, having staff who understand customer service means describing items of clothing to a blind person or making sure that the payment terminal is low enough for a wheelchair user to access. All these things are about attitude, common sense and acceptance not money.
Children are the greatest teachers of inclusion. They usually have the answers and have ideas about how to include others naturally when they are asked. We need to see them as a resource and ask them what they think the child in the classroom or the person in the group needs. They don’t know labels and disability unless they are taught them, they simply know people and behaviour. They are more likely to be accepting of others if they have been in their company from early on and know no different. They can teach us so much if only we listen. It starts early
It’s not just about my kid, you aren’t doing other people a favour by valuing inclusion. Inclusion benefits everyone and by its very nature teaches that no one is excluded on the basis of physical or intellectual impairment, race, gender, age or sexuality. It teaches that everyone has gifts and no one is simply a set of problems or labels. I know that my daughter’s classmates will grow to be even better people because they are friends with her and are being educated alongside her. They are more accepting, more understanding, kinder and more thoughtful children for knowing her. That is just one of the gifts she brings to her community.
It’s ok to be scared or nervous about inclusion. But fear is no reason to not do it. Feel the fear and do it anyway, isn’t that the saying? It’s ok to acknowledge that as a teacher, an employer, a dance teacher or even a parent, you have no idea what you are doing and that you are terrified of getting it wrong. It’s ok. Look that fear straight in the eye and say bring it on. Change is hard and the unknown is scary, people in general don’t like it when ‘the norm’ changes. The old adage ‘well I’m alright jack’ kicks in and people resist because they are afraid of what change will look like and how it might affect them. This is totally normal and means that you need to push past that fear and the influence of other people’s fear. The immense sense of satisfaction when it works will be all the sweeter.
On that note, it’s ok to get inclusion wrong. It’s ok if the first time or, in our case, the first few times you try something that it’s a disaster. You don’t give up and say oh well it didn’t work that one time so inclusion doesn’t work or won’t work for this kid. You try again, you thinking about what needs changing or what might make a positive difference. Give it time. You don’t stop teaching a child to read because they can’t do it the first time they try. Things take time. It’s ok to do it slowly, take baby steps, as a parent start small with outside school activities, build up to thinking about mainstream school. As a teacher or an employer ask for help, use the resources of parents, networks, community, people have the answers if only you ask.
‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’, – name that tv show…ok I’ll tell you, it’s Friday Night Lights and it’s the motto of the high school American football team. It also reflects how I feel we should approach inclusion. I’ve learnt to go into every new challenge with clear eyes; having a clear aim, knowing what the path to get there might look like, being aware that we might have to work hard to help others to see what we can see and knowing that the path might change along the way or turn out to be a dead end. Having a full heart; believing in the good in people and their ability to help us achieve our vision. Can’t lose; knowing that even if things don’t work out the way we wanted them to or if it ends up being a bit of a disaster, we can’t lose because we tried and next time will be better because we tried this time.
Inclusion starts from an early age, the only special thing about being a childhood should be the magic of being a child. If your child likes music then find a music class or a dance class that is relaxed and open to having kids who just want to have fun and not become prima ballerinas. Join clubs like rainbows or scouts, find out what they need to help them be inclusive. When Lyla attended a special needs ballet class, she knew no one. We thought it would be great because the other kids were all ‘just like her’ but she didn’t know any of them and what she wanted was a class of her friends who SHE viewed as ‘just like her’. It was all done with such love but my gut kept telling me that Lyla should be able to go to a local dance class with her friends. My gut was right and so the dance class she goes to now is 5 minutes walk from our house, is full of her friends and is fully inclusive, it doesn’t need to label itself inclusive, it just is. Why do we need to start this work young? Honestly, it’s because Lyla deserves to live a full good life as much as anyone else. Once she leaves school she deserves to follow her interests and passions as much as any other school leaver does. The only way to achieve this is for us to start expecting inclusion and changing societies views of disability.
Why do we have to work so hard at this? In our not to distant past disabled people were hidden away, they were determined to have no value and were seen as objects of pity and a burden to society. Any one of us can become disabled in an instant, you would still be the same person with the same dreams, values and gifts as before. Your new physical or intellectual impairments don’t make you disabled, the attitudes and physical environments around you do. You would still want to enjoy the things you always enjoyed. How would you feel if you weren’t afforded those opportunities anymore or if you were made to feel like a burden or of no value to society? Pretty crap I imagine. Disabilities make us uncomfortable, they make us confront feelings that we don’t like, they challenge our view of a ‘perfect normal’. Unless we want to go back to the days of group homes or care homes or see our kids wasting away in day centres that do nothing to find out what the individual wants to do with their time then we need to start challenging societies expectations of inclusion.
Inclusion is not always easy or straightforward, it can be messy, confronting and challenging but god damn it feels good when we get it right.