Inclusive Education Because We Are All Special

By: Gretchen Vaught

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“Because of your program, my third grader figured out that I’m giving her medicine for ADHD!” the irate mother, who happened to be a school PTA president, shouted through the phone.

Even though my ears were clogged from a horrible respiratory infection that had me in bed all day, her criticism of the disability education program for which I was a volunteer came through loud and clear. There was nothing I could say, and it wasn’t because I’d nearly lost my voice to the virus. The truth was, AIM! Advocacy + Inclusion on a Mission was designed by trained advocates, special educators and talented people with advanced degrees to ensure that kids understood disabilities and knew how to act around people who might have one—even when that person was the student herself.

“Your daughter is smart and your trying to keep her ignorant instead of talking to her about ADHD is the kind of parenting fail that breeds rebellion in later years,” is what I wanted to say. But this mom’s anger belied the shame she felt, so I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I thought about how lucky her daughter and my children are to be exposed to such unique and culture-changing curriculum. Back in the 1980s when I was in school, most students didn’t get to share their classrooms with kids who had different learning styles or behavior patterns. Access ramps, elevators and accommodations weren’t commonplace. In fact, I never had a single classmate with an apparent disability … not once from first grade through college. With one paradigm-shifting exception.

Her name was JJ. She went to a “special school” because she had cerebral palsy. I met her in third grade because my school had a program for kids who tested “gifted” that partnered us up weekly with a child who had disabilities. JJ was non-verbal so I read to her. She colored pictures for me. I have a mental photograph of the two of us on a concrete playground. The sun is shining and other kids are playing, and we are in a happy place. A place called friendship.

The Christmas ornament JJ gave me that year still hangs on my tree. After third grade I never saw her again, and it wasn’t until my fourth decade of life that I was privileged to know another individual with cerebral palsy.

JJ’s influence on my life was subtle. Starting with a simple childish friendship, she planted a seed that took decades to blossom. It happened when I sent my own child who has intellectual and developmental disabilities to school. I witnessed how his knowledge and abilities exploded because of his community of age-appropriate, typically developing classmates. I watched his presence literally brighten the demeanor of crusty pedagogues and snarky schoolchildren alike. And most of all I marveled at how caring for him matured his siblings beyond their peers. Not only are they more responsible, they are empathetic, which is even more valuable.

People who argue against inclusion for students with disabilities cite two primary objections. First, they worry about typical students being held back from achieving their full potential. That objection dovetails with the second, which is that teachers are stretched too thin and can’t be expected to meet the needs of all students in a classroom.

Yes, teachers are stretched, but that is arguably how the teaching skill is best honed. And, the best teachers seem to enjoy the challenges of meeting unique student needs versus hoping for a homogenous class of lemmings. Sure, today’s student-teacher ratios are unfair, and extreme behavior and health exceptions exist, but those who base the argument against inclusion for most students with disabilities on lack of resources are, in my opinion, too narrow-minded. Should the minority suffer or be prevented from achieving their highest potential because the majority might have to be slightly limited?

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“Adversity is the catalyst for greatness.”
“We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them.”
There’s a reason quotes like these inspire us. Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.” Whining is unproductive. Let’s figure out a way to get our teachers the resources they need so students can get the education they deserve—inclusive of the diversity that exists in the world!

I’m not a classroom teacher so you could label me too dismissive of the objections. In reality, it’s just that I believe inclusion is a human rights issue, which trumps the objections. Human rights are essentially the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

The story of Martin Pistorius offers a poignant case in point. Martin suffered a debilitating condition that trapped him in his own body, unable to communicate though his senses were fully cognizant and engaged, for 12 years. Now that he has recovered so that he can interact with family and friends and has even written a book about his experience (Ghost Boy), we call his life worthwhile. Did he deserve to be ignored because of a health demise over which he had no control?

That’s a brutal question, to be sure. And we can pontificate and argue endlessly about the answer. But when it’s your son or yourself who’s in question, your perspective shifts dramatically.

Human rights trump the objections because disabilities can’t be predicted or planned for. They happen unexpectedly. Imagine that your daughter develops a disability due to an accident, and her principal tells you that your child must be removed from her normal routine and social circle because of it. As a good parent, you’d object! That’s called being an advocate, something we also teach through AIM!

Looking back, I realize that’s what JJ planted in me: the seed of advocacy, a strong and lovely thing watered by selfless friendship and fertilized by personal experience. Empathy, patience and selflessness cannot be taught except through interaction and connection with those who cannot mask their vulnerabilities like the rest of us. One of the most wonderful things people with disabilities provide our society is an opportunity to lose our self-importance, reminding us we are all disabled, most of us just get to hide it.

In that sense, we all need “special education.”

Gretchen VaughtAbout the author

Gretchen Vaught has been communicating since she was age one, to the delight and dismay of many. She decided to make a living at what came naturally, joining Smith Communication Partners in 2012, first as a contractor and then as a full-time consultant. Her professional experience spans nearly 20 years, and now includes service as a board member for two nonprofit organizations, including Build Inclusion, the parent company of AIM! Advocacy + Inclusion on a Mission. She is a charismatic advocate for people with disabilities. When she’s not working, she enjoys keeping her heart healthy in various ways. Connect with her at LinkedIn.

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