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The Infinite Benefits of Including Students With Disabilities

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I was in my daughter’s middle school for a meeting with some of her teachers. As I was walking down a hallway with a few of them they stated, “Look, there is Yassy! She is cycling away. We hear she loves to go in that room and ride the bike for the whole gym class. She is in great shape.”  I looked in the room and there weren’t many other kids in there. It was new, with a glass wall, so I saw her and took this photo. It is blurry because I was trying to be quick, so as not to distract her.

As we walked away I remarked that there weren’t many other kids riding bikes, why was that? They then told me her gym class was rather large and was having a chaotic year. They were existing with substitute teachers as their main gym teacher had taken a job elsewhere. Because of all the subs, many students were taking advantage of that fact and misbehaving. Yassy knew that, and preferred to stay away from trouble. She did this by peacefully riding a bike.

I was proud of her. Many students get involved in trouble simply by association. Others cower and fret, understandably. Yassy chose neither option, she simply found something better to do. I must state here that she has Down syndrome and autism, but was always 100% included in her schools.

When I happened across this photo recently many other memories ran through my mind. I remembered her teachers in middle and high school telling me that she would stand up in class and tell disruptive students to be quiet because she was “there to learn.” I heard this numerous times, but it always surprised me because Yassy is normally very shy. However, when something important, like learning, was at stake, she chose to speak up.

Then there were the times that IEP teams highly recommended she leave classes five minutes early to avoid the crowded halls in high school because she was so tiny and used a rolling backpack. I agreed at first. But it didn’t take long to realize she didn’t need to do that. I realized she was close to being an adult, and entering the real world full time, where one needs to get used to crowds. Plus, she was missing classes leaving early. So Yassy stayed in her classes, like everyone else.

The statistics for students with ID, autism, or both to be fully included in all general education classes in their home school are dismal. This is a tragic fact costing countless students, and their peers, well-rounded educations and the intangible benefits of true inclusion.

Like seeing Yassy quietly choose to go ride a bike to avoid trouble, and perhaps doing the same thing.

Like quietly being grateful someone else stood up to the kids making class chaotic, and finally being able to learn. Or if you are the teacher, being able to teach.

Like learning to be more aware and considerate of others around you in crowded situations like hallways, even if you are almost 7 feet tall with 4’9” kids with wheels whizzing around.

A friend recently posted a  25-year-old newspaper article from Fairfax County, Va. on social media. It read in part: “I am so happy that XXXXXX is so excited because her child gets to go to kindergarten class near his home, even though he has special needs. She’s pleased and I suppose we should all be pleased. However, I am not pleased, because what this means is that my child, who attends classes there also, will probably not get as much attention, because the teacher will probably have to spend so much time with the special child. Isn’t it nice we help one child and disadvantage some 20 others.”

There it is, this parent’s ignorance, and discrimination out in the open for all to see. Still relevant in 2022. I write this piece to address the ignorance, which needs to be chipped at daily in this world. I write this piece also in gratitude. Because when I proudly say my daughter received a solid, well-rounded fully inclusive education, I mean academics and all the intangible benefits that come with that. She was prepared for the real world where she is mindfully building a well-rounded inclusive life as a young adult.

Please look around and do what you can to chip away at the sometimes overwhelming ignorance surrounding people with disabilities and inclusion. I bet the infinite benefits will surprise you, and those around you. In the very best ways.

Originally published: February 8, 2022
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