Every year that I attend the National Inclusion Project’s Champions Gala, I leave with so many emotions. I can always guarantee someone, or something, will bring me to tears and this year was no exception. Being the mother of a son with a disability, I relate to many many things said or shown at the Gala and every year there seems to be one moment that gets to me more than others.
This year it came towards the end when Aron Hall, Director of Programs was speaking. He was talking about all the negative things we hear about our kids. Oh, did I ever live that. Who, as a parent wants to hear all of the things that your child did that were perceived as ‘bad’ or everything you are told is something negative. I first encountered it at the beginning of Jamie’s elementary years. I was called into a meeting where I had to sit and listen to just such a thing. He had been doing things they didn’t like, one for example, was simply getting up from his table in lunch going to one of the others. I saw pictures of them practically dragging him back to his table. Do you know, he just wanted to go sit with some of the regular kids?! In tears, I finally stopped them and said, ‘Tell me something GOOD or POSITIVE about Jamie. Tell me something he does well!’ It was at this meeting that I decided from then on out, I would remind all who attended these meetings, at the beginning of them, that he may be just a ‘case’ to them, but to me, he is and will always be my SON!
I have attended many parent conferences during the years, mostly in the early years, and one year our speaker was Norman Kunc, who is a well-known speaker, author, and advocate for disability-related issues. He also happened to be born with cerebral palsy. He spoke to us that day about the importance of inclusion and why it was important for the ‘normal’ kids. He talked about how these will be the kids that grow up to be their doctors, dentists, and any other people in the world that they may across in day to day living. He said that there are no ‘special’ Wal-Marts, or grocery stores. How else do our kids learn to treat all people the same, to see that all are the same, if we segregate away the ones with disabilities? I never ever forgot his words. Through the school years, I saw over and over how inclusion did affect the ‘normal’ kids in school!
From the moment Jamie was in school, I believed in, and fought for inclusion. It hadn’t really been done before him, I was told. Most parents had settled for what back then was ‘token integration’-art, music. It was not enough. If my son was to learn the behavior that the school wanted from him, where was the best place to learn it? In classes with his peers. Not only was the Least Restrictive Environment, the law, it was the right thing to do.Before he went into first grade, the school had me come into the class to talk to the kids. They wanted the kids to see he had a mom like them, that he loved to do the things they did. What I learned that day, was the kids were not the problem when it came to including our kids. We came to the question time, and there was only one. A little girl in the front raised her hand. “What is he going to be for Halloween?” was her question. I found through the years, it was some of the adults, some of the teachers, that had a problem with inclusion.
I remember one particular difficult IEP meeting. (Individual Education Plan) It was the transition meeting for middle school. It was supposed to be his homeroom teacher from elementary and me, and ONE regular teacher representative from the middle school. The door opened over and over and more of those teachers came in. I counted 15 in the small room. One was a past special education teacher who wanted nothing to do with having Jamie in her class, as she had enough of dealing with ‘those kids’ through the years. Another was a science teacher who wanted to know how he would know that Jamie was learning anything. I told him you do what you do with all your kids. You TEACH him. He will show you he is learning. It went on and on and on. Finally, his current homeroom teacher said, ‘STOP! ALL CHILDREN MATTER!’ I will never forget that. I saw the tears in her eyes as she said it. Before I got home, she had sent an email apologizing for the others. I won’t lie, it was rough. BUT I also knew Jamie and I also knew how great his elementary years had been. How he had been accepted by the kids, and how once he got a Christmas card from one of the girls, who had only given them to some kids she liked a lot! I also knew, as our kids got older, things could possibly be different.
Middle school was the most difficult of all the school years. Again because of some of the teachers. If you think Jamie did not notice, or feel it, you would be wrong. He did. It almost ruined school for him. I am grateful for the ones that DID accept him, the ones that were able to see past the disability. The ones that saw his personality, and intelligence, and even his sense of humor!
Next came high school. Now I was getting nervous. Kids could change and be less accepting, I had been told. Luckily, again, it was not a problem. I became less nervous after meeting the assistant principal. She ended up being a great advocate for inclusion. She commented to me once, “Whatever you want, we will make happen”. And she did. The ‘regular’ computer teacher had concerns, but he was included anyhow. He ended up showing his para how to do things in that class, and I got an apology from that teacher at a later meeting. That tended to happen a lot through the years! I am sure many thought, Oh great, here comes another parent with those rose-colored glasses on. But that wasn’t it at ALL. I KNEW inclusion was the right thing and I knew it would work. Was it easy? No. But if you plan and put the right supports in place, and BELIEVE, it does work. You see not only your child blossom and do things they would never do without it, you also see the difference it makes in the lives of others. Not only the kids, but the teachers and anyone who works with them. I know, because I have been told, that many were affected by my son. In a good way. Jamie became a teacher to many during his school years.
One story I will tell you now, happened not in school, but in a group I belonged to on the internet. It came from a mom who had children without any disabilities. She had said to all the others, leaving me out, of course, not knowing I would ever read her words, that she thought it was obvious I did not win the ‘genetic lottery’ when it came to Jamie. I was stunned. She went on to say how she was SO opposed to inclusion and did not want any child like my son in any class with her kids-she felt that having them in there would somehow affect her children in a negative way. It would take away from their education. She was one of those that thought our kids belonged in their own segregated little rooms, like they had less value than hers. I go back to what Jamie’s teacher said…
ALL CHILDREN MATTER!
Inclusion is not dumping our kids into a classroom with no supports. It is not letting them go to only art class or to music with the others. It is making sure they are in the least restrictive environment, in classes and activities with their peers. It is showing all the kids that all kids are more alike than not, it shows them that all have a place in this world, side by side. It is getting to get a senior picture taken
and earning a diploma just like your classmates.
It is belonging. Always.