inclusion – it’s not just for school

{image is a cartoon depicting a speaker at a lectern in front of a crowd. When he asks, “Who wants change?” all the hands are raised. When he asks, “Who wants to change?” not a single hand is up.}

Inclusion is about a sense of belonging, about feeling respected, valued for who you are. It is an all-encompassing practice of ensuring that people of differing abilities related to, for example, sex, age, and race, feel a sense of belonging, are engaged, and are connected to the goals and objectives of the whole wider society.”

Buyie Masuku

When we talk about inclusion vis-à-vis disability, many of us conjure up an image of kids in school – of an educational setting that welcomes all learners and a teacher-led culture of acceptance. We are very comfortable fighting for the inclusion of special education students in general ed classrooms, demanding their involvement in nearly every aspect of academic life.

I once wrote that (educational) inclusion doesn’t – can’t – mean throwing everyone in a room together and hoping for the best. In order to work, I said, inclusion has to be thoughtfully designed. It must be painstakingly planned and executed. It must be FLEXIBLE and agile – constantly able to evolve and change as the needs and skills of those involved evolve and change – and it must be constantly monitored so as to see where those changes are occurring in real time.

And so we beseech our children’s educators to do the day to day work that real inclusion requires. And, in holding their feet to the fire, we think we’ve done our job for our kids. But schools aren’t where inclusion ends. If we’re doing it right, they are simply where it begins.

Kids grow up. They become adults. And every single aspect of society – from our houses of worship to our places of employment to restaurants and amusement parks and theaters and shops and ANY and EVERY place that human beings go MUST be settings that welcome all with a deeply ingrained culture of acceptance.

WE are the kids who grew up. How are we treating one another? Are we creating inclusive spaces? Are we flexible, agile, compassionate? Are we actively seeking or creating opportunities to make the places that we inhabit accessible to those still outside our walls? Are we paying attention to our own behavior?

Last week, something happened that forced a friend (and fellow mom of an autistic child) and I to face some hard truths. We had invited an autistic friend to participate in something and then gone merrily on our way, planning it around rather than with them. When we realized what was happening, we were horrified and ashamed. Looking in the mirror is not always an easy exercise.

Years ago, when Brooke was in elementary school, Luau and I found out that she spent a lot of her time sitting in the back of her theoretically integrated classroom, doing totally different lessons than the other kids with her aide. We were outraged. Geographical inclusion, we railed, is not inclusion at all. It’s simply putting someone in the room and claiming that they are thereby a part of what’s happening in it.

Embarrassingly, that’s exactly what my friend and I had inadvertently done. We’d invited an autistic friend into the room and then failed to ask for their input, their involvement, their participation – less what WE had decided they should or could do.

Thankfully, we caught ourselves. We took a step back and started over. But how many times does our own inherently ableist behavior go unchecked? How many times do we open the door and think that’s enough?

It’s not.


10 thoughts on “inclusion – it’s not just for school

  1. While reading today’s post I was so moved by the truths of the need for inclusion of all children in all walks of life. I do have a solution…. Pay teachers enough money to get the special training they need to help our children (ALL of our children) be the very best of themselves. I live in a rural area of South Carolina. Funding for education is the first to be cut in our corner of the state. We live surrounded by poverty. We have teachers funding their classroom from their own pockets. We simply do not have the resources to give our children what they need. It takes all we can do to feed the more than 80% of our children who are on free lunch program. We have a volunteer program to send food for their families over the weekend so we know they will have food to eat. I am grateful that you live in an area that can give our children the advocasy they need to stretch and learn at their own time and become the wonderful included members of a community that they deserve. I only ask that we realize that not all families have those resources. God bless you and your family. You are a shining example of what CAN be and what the rest of us can aspire to…. Keep us in your prays too please, that our children can have some of those advantages that you speak about. They are the ones who are hurting.

    • Faye, of course. OF COURSE. Always.

      To be clear, the point of this post was to draw attention to our behavior as adults as it relates to societal inclusion specifically, but those children, those teachers, never, ever leave our prayers, our thoughts, or our efforts for reform.

  2. I understand that if a student is close to grade level they should be doing a version of the same assignment as everyone else but if a student has a more severe intellectual disability then why is it always bad for them to be doing a different assignment in the same room? As children age the gap widens, if they can’t do lessons at their level in the gen ed setting then there’s very little inclusion at the high school level for students who are academically at the elementary school level. Of course any time there is a lesson that the student could participate in they should be included in that lesson, but for some lessons, shouldn’t we encourage teachers to have different groups of kids doing different activities in the same room? Make it so it isn’t 29 kids doing one lesson and one kid doing a different lesson but truly differentiate so lots of kids are doing different things at the same time?

    • “shouldn’t we encourage teachers to have different groups of kids doing different activities in the same room? Make it so it isn’t 29 kids doing one lesson and one kid doing a different lesson but truly differentiate so lots of kids are doing different things at the same time?”


      which is very different than having a class of one at the back of the room while EVERY OTHER STUDENT is participating in one, class-wide (minus one) activity.

      • My question is whether you think it is ever ok to have one student doing something different with a teacher or parapro in a space to the side, back or wherever from the class? In a small town where there’s only one kid at that age who has an intellectual disability and is still at an elementary school level academically, should he or she be included in high school math classes? In this scenario I would have the student participate more fully perhaps in a science lab or discussion of a play in English class, but for some parts of the day, rather than receiving one on one instruction in a completely separate room he or she is instructed on the same subject in the same room as the gen ed students. Do you support this scenario? Or do you think a separate room would be better? I’m just interested in where your line is.

      • My ‘line’ changes day by day and student by student, depending on any number of factors, as I believe it must.

        Are there times when it’s appropriate for a child to be pulled aside for preview or review one-to-one? Of course. Are there times they’d be better served outside of the room? Yup. Are there times (like all the time) when LRE (least restrictive environment) doesn’t necessarily mean the place that simply boasts the highest number of peers but is the place where LEARNING is least restricted? Hell yes.

        My objection was to the fact that my daughter was almost ALWAYS being taught as a group of one in the back of the room while ALL of her peers were doing something different. If that’s almost always the case, rather than the strategies you referenced in your first comment, that’s not real inclusion.

        Academic inclusion isn’t for everyone. My girl is now in a sub separate classroom with 6 other autistic students for all of her academics and you know what? Given the current structure of a grade level class, that’s by far the best environment for her. It’s a place where, as I believe ultimately all classrooms should but simply don’t yet, they have the tools and resources and expertise to have three different groups of kids working on the same book using materials that present it at three different grade levels.

        BUT – they are completely, unequivocally integrated into the rest of the life of the school, from art and chorus to PE (where she has an adaptive instructor to help facilitate participation) to after school clubs, sports, and the school play.

        Bottom line, Inclusion as I see it is a living, ever changing, always evolving organism. And that just doesn’t lend itself to hard and fast lines.

  3. Love all these comments, particularly your mom’s 😉

    I had similar thoughts, even as mum to an autistic girl, that it seems pretty tough for teachers if we don’t want our children taught alone in the class, but we also don’t want them taught alone outside the class… it seems like a lose-lose situation for everyone if your child is the only one in that peer group at that school at a massively different level (whether that is of cognitive ability, or ability to access the conformist school type of learning…). But as always, you hit the nail on the head by saying that every child, and every situation, needs to be assessed constantly, as day by day they can change. Flexibility is key to success with and for our children. Inclusion is a thought process, an attitude. It is not, as you say, sticking them inside or outside the classroom, or in a mainstream or special ed school. I do believe society is changing, and improving all the time. But it will only continue to do so if we continue to add our voices to the mix, and to remind others to check that the voices of those most affected are also not just listened to, but asked for also. Great post, as always.

  4. Whoa!!!! Jess thank you for this. We been having discussions in our house about inclusion and what it really means a lot lately. Our son has been giving us lessons in that. He wants to be able to do everything that everyone else can do and wants to just be excepted for who he is. He is truly sad when people assume that he can’t do the same things as everyone else. He never makes that assumption about other people he only knows that many things in life are hard. “Mommy it’s so hard.” Then there’s the problem of inclusion just for the sake of inclusion when at times to truly access the curriculum some children whether their autistic or have other learning delays need one on one instruction. I don’t want inclusion just for the sake of it looking good at school and people putting themselves on the back because my son is now part of the so-called group and identify some self is part of the group . Thank you for this thought-provoking post and as we look for balance in our lives.

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