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What True Inclusion Means to Me as a Neurodiverse Student

Inclusion is a hot word that has a universally understood general meaning, yet has lots of interpretations between people and groups. Some people define inclusion as everyone being in the same classrooms, workplaces, and residences with no exception while others define inclusion as being in the same place and still having access to the “separate” places or organizations in the community (such as Special Olympics, group homes, etc.)

I’ve noticed that lately, the definition has shifted towards the “same everything, no exception,” approach. Well, I hate to tell you, but that alone is not real inclusion. Allow me to explain.

As a student with a learning disability, I have been in many “inclusive” settings. All a school has to do in order to check off the inclusion box is to have the student in the same classroom. Sounds reasonable, right? But what if I told you that said student doesn’t do/isn’t allowed to do the same academic work as their mainstream peers? That they go in and out of the room all day every day because of pull out, speech, OT, etc.? Then when they are in the class, they often sit in the back to work on multiplication while the rest of the class is up front working on advanced division? What if I also told you that teachers and other students in the class socially reject said student by bullying her, nagging her about small things that her mainstream peers don’t get nagged about, and regard her as an “other”?

Is that inclusion? I assume you said no. For those who may have said yes, allow me to elaborate further. Would you want to be in a class or a workplace where your fellow students/coworkers regarded you very poorly or as “the dumb one”? Would you want to deal with a teacher or boss who constantly tells you that your work is inadequate and that you aren’t trying hard enough? Would you want to be the “punching bag” of the class or workplace? Obviously no, since who wants to be in that kind of environment? Not me!

Real inclusion is more than being in the same classroom or workplace with nondisabled and neurotypical people. It is being in a space where your neurotypical and nondisabled peers and coworkers accept you for who you are, reasonably accommodate you, and feel like you truly belong. There is no “otherness” feeling nor are there bullies. There are people who genuinely care about you, appreciate your contributions, and have universal accessibility to the class or work environment.

An example is going from high school where many teachers and students bullied me to a specialized college for students with learning disabilities. Even though the college was exclusively one population (so are Harvard, Yale, and all X demographic schools) there was real inclusion. The campus community accepted me for who I was, accommodated me, and made education and campus life accessible for all students.

The result? I learned like I never learned before and I found my passions and got a degree. I was the happiest version of myself since I felt empowered. I also internalized the idea that there is nothing wrong with me, but rather there is something wrong with society for not accepting the disability population as part of a free society. That is my definition of what real inclusion is and what it should be.

Getty image by Prostock-Studio.