When Inclusion Works, the Possibilities Are Infinite
Do you have a child with a disability? If you do, I’m almost positive that at some point in this parenting journey you have felt the pain of wanting them to be happy and included. Do you have a child without a disability? Have you ever been sad when your child felt left out? If you have, I can confidently say to multiply that feeling by infinity and you’ll have a small understanding of how awful it feels when your child with a disability is excluded.
My daughter Ashlynn is now 12 and started middle school. She’s only ever been invited to one peer’s birthday parties. Despite being happy and kind with a smile so bright it could rival the sun, it’s always been a struggle for her to be included. A natural-born socialite, Ashlynn was born with disabilities that have effectively worked as barriers between her and her desire to be social. How much does she long to feel included? I can’t really say for sure but anything I can imagine I’m sure we can multiply by… infinity.
Inclusion is not something new. Disability advocates including special education staff and others have been trying to do this successfully for decades. Though we’ve come farther than when I was in high school, where the kids in special education only had a hallway and never attended general education classes, simply sticking them in general education classes wasn’t including them either.
As time went on, we have been learning. Inclusion is not just a place. If it were, kids on the outside would have long been included by now. True inclusion is really a culture. It’s in a culture of people who all viscerally buy into this idea that everyone matters. It’s a culture of many many people beyond disability and diversity advocates who accept we all have way more in common than we do not. So what are the possibilities of an entire culture of people practicing inclusion? I’m no expert, but I think the answer is probably infinity.
That leads me to this new middle school my daughter Ashlynn is at this year. Even just walking through the doors, one gets the sense that this building houses a culture of inclusivity. It’s literally written in signs on the walls and throughout the building. In the girls’ bathroom, positive affirmation notes are hung above the mirrors. I remember washing my hands and wondering if instead of hating my reflection every day as a middle schooler how it might have helped to then read a positive affirmation above it? In hallways, inspirational messages are posted throughout like this one from Eckhart Tolle that reads:
“Some changes look negative on the surface, but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.”
Middle school is full of so many changes. Changes to our bodies, our cognition, and our way of navigating the world. Imagine a child going through that but reading that sign above Ashlynn every day. Could it change how they feel? I don’t really know for sure, but even if it helped one child, it’s worth it. Who knows how many that child would go on to help? Maybe the answer is more like infinity.
Ashlynn has thrived in her sixth-grade year, being included in general education, track, and basketball. Her science teacher modifies her school work on his own. He takes responsibility himself for scaffolding her work instead of relying on the special education teacher. The dean of students who helps with traffic flow in the morning took to Ashlynn “helping” her do traffic duty. Every morning Ashlynn happily smiles and waves on the cars alongside the dean. It would be impossible not to notice how Ashlynn is being included every morning by teachers, parents and students alike. You know what this fosters? Inclusion times infinity.
The year culminated into something called the first annual “Inclusion Spirit Week.” Excuse me? I’ve worked in special education since 2004 and I’ve never ever heard of anything like this. To make it work though, all members of the community had to believe in and practice inclusion, because as I said, inclusion is not a place, it’s a culture. It’s a culture like Spirit Week for school pride! It’s a culture like team spirit. It takes a collective group of people, disabled and non-disabled, advocates and non-advocates who truly believe inclusion matters.
To be clear, inclusion week was not just about kids with disabilities. I’m writing about it because my child happens to have one. The week had themes of not letting anyone sit alone, how to be a friend when you see someone sitting alone, and more. The assembly featured games and incorporated all members of the student body participating in games against the teachers. That’s where Ashlynn came in. She was on a basketball team of students working to get more baskets in one minute than the teachers. She was paired with a peer buddy who helped her alongside other general education students working to defeat the teachers. How much did this mean to her? Well to quote Buzz Lightyear, I’m pretty sure it was “to infinity and beyond.”
I don’t say it lightly when I tell you that Ashlynn’s new school has been nothing short of amazing. Reading, writing, and math are important, but so are kindness and mental health. This school offers all of that. What’s the name of such an amazing school, you might ask? Well, it’s none other than Infinity Middle School.
Our gratitude overflows. My husband bawled through the entire assembly. The only way to describe happiness like that is nothing shorter than infinity.