I was asked recently whether having children with learning disabilities as wholly included members of a regular classroom environment, detracts in any way from the learning of other mainstream children in the room. That is, whether or not it detracts from the education of those without disabilities.
Normally these kinds of questions make me bristle and want to spit venom.
But this time, the question was posed by someone I respect very much -- someone who had a brother with Down's Syndrome herself. And as it is something she wonders about, having grown up in a home where life was forever changed because of one special family member, I purposefully made myself think about why I whole-heartedly embrace inclusive education. And why I believe it is the best way to educate all children.
I have had the privilege of teaching children with mild to severe disabilities as part of my regular classroom for the last three teaching assignments. And I can honestly say that in teaching children of varying levels of ability, I have discovered a few things about myself.
First of all, I have come to realize that my initial understandings about inclusive education and what it entails were wrong in that they were off-course as to the desired intent of inclusionary teaching.
When I first started teaching children who needed adaptations and modifications to the regular program, I thought, "This is going to be a lot of work." I even might have thought that I needed to make things fair -- balancing the time I invested in the students who were struggling with the time allotted for assisting the needs of those students who required more specialized educating. My initial understanding might have leaned more towards the belief that inclusive education is okay as long as it is equal. As long as everyone gets an equal slice of the pie.
Teaching in this way is exhausting. You are forever running from student to student trying to balance out your time, making sure that everyone has their two minutes of 'face time' and that all have equal opportunity.
But I have since come to believe that this kind of teaching makes as much sense as parenting in this way might play out. It's not a great way to do it.
I have four children that vary in ages from 6-13. We do a lot of things together as a family, one activity being traveling in our van to and fro from event to event. If I were to suggest to each of my four children that a requirement for all of them to catch a ride in the van would be that they buckle up in a booster seat, I would have the older ones protesting as soon as the words came out of my mouth. And of course, I might hypothetically answer back by saying, in order to keep everything equal for the youngest, it's only fair that everyone wears the booster seat.
The thirteen year old would be the first to jump ship and be offended (because of course he has the most to lose; a junior-high school reputation).
But really, it would be ludicrous of me to suggest to a child that didn't need it, that had reached a required height to eliminate the use of a booster seat anymore, now needed to use a booster seat so that their six-year old sister didn't feel like she was the only one in our van load that was different.
My children understand that some need booster seats, and some don't. Are we all on the same journey? Yes. Are we headed in the same direction? Yes. Do we travel there in exactly the same fashion? No.
Fair doesn't mean equal. And neither do inclusionary classrooms have to be hinged on equality so as to enable a fair and equitable education for all. What inclusion does mean, I have come to realize, is that inclusionary classrooms are all about the 'fair' and the 'just' educating of all students. So, taking it back to the van example, if the six-year old were to protest to me that she wanted it to be fair, and that she demanded to have exactly what the others had -- a ride sitting on the cushioned seat of our van, what she would soon come to find out would be that she was unable to see out the window. And also, that the seat belt buckle was settled directly over her nose.
Would it be equal to let her ride like this? Yes. But would she get what she needed most; a safe, comfortable ride that allowed her to look out the window? No.
Now, the thing is, some people might think that taking the time to make all these adaptations and special allowances for four kids that are riding all over West Prince and beyond might take time and effort on the part of their parents, and they'd be right. It does take effort. But since I know what the benefits are, and since I know that these benefits out-weigh the cost (i.e. loss of time that is used up while making the arrangements, cost of buying a booster seat, my own personal sanity, etc.), it's worth it.
And as I love my children, these arrangements are also well worth the time they take to make them part of our family routine.
So it is with my teaching. When you see the positive outcomes and benefits that inclusionary practice makes in the life of a child, there is no turning back to do it any other way. The kids I teach are worth the time and effort it takes to include them, and they deserve an equitable, fair education regardless of what they bring to the classroom table. This is our mandate as teachers: to provide the necessities and advantages for kids so they can learn in their BEST way.
To do otherwise is an injustice.
Mostly, what I have learned about inclusionary classrooms is that being with people that are different in so many wonderful ways has made me a better, more compassionate person. And I have sensed that same impact being felt by both able-bodied students and dis-abled students in like manner. Differences often enhance relationships. And when one embraces the difference and uses it as an opportunity to grow and develop their character, that person is a better person for it.
Having been part of many inclusionary environments over my lifetime, I have come to realize that being with people that challenge my thinking, provoke intelligent discussions, fine-tune my character and stimulate my passions- these are the people who help me become a more empathic person. And since this has been a life-goal of mine to journey towards greater empathy and understanding, I would venture to also say that being with those who are different than me has allowed me to become a better person.
And so has it allowed my students to become the same. Better people. Brighter lights. The hope for a more compassionate future.
And that this is so is also evident in the ways that the students who have been part of inclusive classrooms treat one another, both able-bodied and those with disabilities alike: by and large, they treat each other with mutual respect and honour, both showing great compassion and understanding, one for the other. And time and time again, it is the students who have been part of inclusionary classrooms who exhibit the greatest understanding for difference and the most compassion and empathy for those who are not the same as them.
That's the extraordinary power of the inclusive classroom.