I have been getting a lot of emails lately. Nasty ones. That little picture we put up of Gage holding the sign saying that he deserved to go to school has reached over 2 million people so far, so of course you are going to get a whole spectrum of people who feel that they need to speak out against a 5-year-old boy being included in the public education system, and about us being terrible parents for using his picture to help demand it. If you have read any of the comments under the photo, I am sure you will know what they say. Mostly, they go a little like this:
“How DARE you! How dare you think that your disabled child belongs in a classroom with normal children. Your child belongs in a separate place with others of her (sic) kind. She will RUIN the education of the normal children. You are selfish and you are in denial! You are living in a dream world…..”
And that was one of the nicer ones.
How could people be so mean and make assumptions about a child they had never met? Did so many people not realize that autism is a spectrum and in most states autistic kids are included in mainstream classrooms? Do people still equate autism with people so dysfunctional that they need to be institutionalized? Why did people so vehemently attack our desire for Gage treated equally to the other children? I felt like I was indeed in a dream world, only it was one where I was living in the Jim Crow south and autism was the new black.
And then I realized — people must not really know what inclusion is. We sure didn’t before we started this journey with Gage. When Gordon and I first starting thinking about the idea of Gage being included, our biggest concerns were not for Gage. Our very first question was: “How will Gage being in a mainstream classroom affect the other children?” We wanted Gage to be included, but never at the expense of someone else. A friend pointed out to us the inclusion dynamic that had been present in our older son’s Kinder class 2 years earlier — there had been a few boys who could just not stay in their seats. They had a need for movement and they might have had some special needs (hey that sounds kind of like Gage!). Rather than punish them for not sitting, the teacher brilliantly just… let them stand, and move more, and be hyper as much as she could. Because she knew it would help them. It is called accommodation. Hmmm, we thought, that is right, those guys were very active, and did anyone in their K class NOT learn the alphabet or phonics or the calendar because of them. Did they RUIN anyone’s kindergarten education? Um, no. No they did not.
But Gage, we thought, he ‘s more than just a mover. He isn’t great at talking yet, and he certainly doesn’t do a lot of eye contact, he tenses up sometimes, he has a lot of input coming into his brain, all the time. How can they accommodate that? An aide, we were told. An aide. Just like kids who can’t walk need a wheelchair or kids who have poor vision need glasses, some kids with autism need a one on one aide. It is called accommodating a disability. And it is a normal practice in other states. Just not Nevada, apparently.
Then we started researching. We thought inclusion was right for Gage (remember he is not intellectually disabled or violent, and is generally a mellow guy) but we wanted evidence. We wanted to be sure that we were doing the right thing and wouldn’t be hurting the other children. We found articles, hundreds of them, that supported inclusion. We found scholarly research papers, books, interviews, lectures. We found out that this inclusion thing we had been thinking about was alive and well and working all over the country! And there were other crazy people like us! But they had letters after their names — letters like PhD, MS, MEd. People who’d been to a lot more school and thought about this a whole lot more than we had. People who thought inclusion was the best way to integrate people with disabilities into society so that they could lead productive and happy lives — and it didn’t stop there. We found a lot of research that said that everyone did better in school when children with disabilities were included. Everyone! (Yes, that means the “normal” kids too!) One source for this assertion: ‘Inclusion as Education Reform’, a research article by Caustin-Theoharis/Theoharis (2010), which shows that test scores improve for all students when all learners are included. Thanks to Lauri Hunt for bringing that one to our attention in her article: “Can You Have Inclusion Without Acceptance”.
We did, of course, look for the other side — the articles, lectures, and books about how horrible it is to include all kinds of different people. We wanted to know what the opposing arguments were. Could inclusion really be this one sided? We found a few mentions of the two big fears — Inclusion will ruin “normal” kids education (which has been disproven in many studies); and the big one… money. If inclusion is done correctly, it is supposed to be cost neutral to providing special schools and pull out programs. People are still afraid it will be too expensive though. To us, this is like being told that our child in a wheelchair can not be included because there is no budget for wheelchair ramps, or our child who doesn’t speak English needs to sit in a corner of the room and be ignored because ELL teachers are just too expensive. Who decides? Every child deserves an equal chance to learn and be included. Why can so many other programs be afforded and our child’s program can not? Who decides that he is not worth educating?
We also found some other interesting articles about how it was right to exclude people who are different. The one that struck me the most was an article about making people who were socially inferior be separated from those who were socially superior. It was an article about Plessy v. Ferguson. Remember that case? It was the one in 1896 (you might remember from your history books) that enshrined the concept of “separate but equal” racism until Brown v. Board of Education righted things in 1954. When I learned about those cases in 8th grade history, never, never, never did I think that I would be fighting the same fight, 117 years later, for my little boy who has trouble communicating. Truly, you can replace the word “black” in the Plessy v. Ferguson case with “autistic” and it is chilling. We are fighting the same fight, just with different fighters.
Jeff Sell, in an article for the Autism Society, explains inclusion in a nutshell:
Full inclusion is a set of strategies aimed at ensuring that all students, including students with significant impact of disability, are fully integrated into the general educational setting and have access to the general education curriculum. There are many positive effects of inclusion practices among both students with special needs as well as non-disabled students. Research has shown positive effects for children with disabilities in areas such as academic gains, improved communication and social skills, and increased positive peer interactions. Positive effects of inclusive educational settings among non-disabled youth include the development of positive attitudes and perceptions of persons with disabilities as well as improved scores on academic standardized tests. To meaningfully implement inclusion, however, teachers and administrators must be fully committed to the principles underlying inclusion practices, and also have the appropriate training, professional development and ongoing supports to successfully transform school environments.
That’s what we want. Exactly.