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What Inclusion Isn’t

cheer_waitInclusion.

It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot in the disability community. It speaks to all our hopes for our children as they go through the process of being taught, in a world where their differences present a daunting challenge to how public education should work. For so many of us, it’s a word that represents a precursor to a larger life after our kids’ school years.

And yet, honestly, do we really know what inclusion would look like, if it were to be implemented in a way that truly functions exactly the way we want it to work?

I have to be honest with you. I don’t know what inclusion done right looks like. I only know how it appears when it’s gone off the rails.

Inclusion isn’t a parking spot in the back of a classroom, where a child in a wheelchair sits while the lesson takes place around her, as if the simple act of placing her in the room represents an effective and meaningful effort towards educating her.

Inclusion isn’t bringing a student onto the basketball court in the last minutes of a game with a lopsided score, so that he can score without opposition and somehow feel included, as if for just a moment, suddenly everything about his reality has changed. He’ll go back to that reality in minutes, but somehow that moment is supposed to change him, and to convince him that he has been included.

Inclusion doesn’t happen when a student is placed in a classroom but isn’t taught the same thing as her classmates. If instead of working to find a path to reach that student in a way that opens their understanding of the material, the teacher elects to dumb down the material until it has little or no relation to what the rest of the students are presented with, that’s not inclusion. That’s taking the easy way out. The faithless way out.

Here’s the thing I can tell you for certain, after a few weeks of observation and tough conversations with my daughter. Inclusion goes far beyond presence, or even participation. When you have expectations of the rest of a group of students, but you treat the disabled child in that group as if you have no expectations at all beyond basic participation and a happy demeanor, that’s not inclusion. It may feel good to you, placing that child in front of the world as an example of a system that honors that student and her potential, but if it’s a sham, there’s one person who might just understand that more deeply that any of us, and more that you could possibly understand.

Because my daughter gets it. When the teacher doesn’t help her, when the teacher doesn’t work with her, when that educator simply observes that Schuyler seems to be happy and that’s all that matters, it never occurs to her that she might not be dealing with busybody, helicopter parents. The teacher dismisses our concerns as if she’s the one who believes in Schuyler, as if her blank check for Schuyler’s participation without improvement represents a kindness that we would deny our daughter. This teacher isn’t there when Schuyler talks to us about the mistakes she’s making, or how frustrated she has become at her inability to find a way to catch up.

“I wish she would treat me like a real student,” Schuyler observed last week, after another tough experience where she knew she had underperformed but where the teacher didn’t seem to care at all. “I want to do better,” she said again and again.

Denying our kids the ability to work hard and perhaps even fail from time to time, instead just displaying them in front of an approving crowd and announcing “Look at this inclusive philosophy we’ve embraced!”, that isn’t inclusion. That’s simply building a Potemkin village for the world to see and admire. It’s a facade. It doesn’t fool Schuyler, or any other kid whose potential is wasted because of fear of failure and a desire to do the nice thing, which is so easily confused with the right thing.

It’s been a long few weeks, and God, we are so, so tired.

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