What is inclusion?
When I asked 5 children this question, I received 5 different answers. But the general meaning was the same. Basically, inclusion was described as being a part of something. When I asked how being included made them feel, they used words such as happy, loved, I belong, and friends. One girl said, "It makes me smile and laugh."
I then asked these 5 children if they had ever been left out or excluded from something. They all answered “Yes!”
So I asked them to tell me how it made them feel to be excluded. Their responses flowed faster than I could write them down. The words that stood out were sad, angry, like a freak, and alone. One even said, "It made me cry."
I was not surprised by these answers. There were times in my life that I had been both included and excluded. I knew what it felt like. But for many people with disabilities, exclusion rather than inclusion is still considered a viable option. Why?
I believe inclusion continues to be a contentious concept for many reasons. Inclusion challenges our educational and social values. Inclusion challenges our self-worth. Inclusion evokes feelings of fear. And inclusion often requires us to step out of our comfort zone. I also believe some people need to see it work to believe it’s possible.
As a mom, I first bought into the idea that my daughter needed specialized services in a setting with other people with disabilities – “people like her.” She needed to be segregated. I was hyper-focused on her health and safety. I didn’t consider how she felt or what made her happy.
I operated out of fear instead of a vision for the future – one filled with hopes and dreams. But that eventually changed. I learned about inclusive education and took steps needed to have my daughter included. And I’m glad I did. It was life-changing. Inclusion in school helps create inclusion in adult life.
My daughter is now an adult. She works part time and is paid above minimum wage. She is an active part of her community. She volunteers twice a week at a local food pantry. She works out at the local fitness center. She has friends with and without disabilities. She takes part in community events – painting, theater, local clubs, etc. She is also a fierce disability rights advocate.
And if asked, she will tell you: "I have a good life."
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