4 Quick Inclusion Resolutions for 2021
It's cliché to call 2020 a year of challenge and change, but it's true! Students with disabilities (and those who support them) were among those most impacted by the pandemic.
As we reflect on the past year and begin another (while hoping for brighter days) - how can educators, families, and friends do a better job of including and supporting students with disabilities? What have we learned and what should we do?
Think Human Needs, Not "Special Needs" - Students with disabilities often face unique challenges and may need "special" supports and services. However, all human beings fundamentally need the same things, even if some humans have their needs met in special ways. We are social animals, wired biologically for belonging. We need a sense of connection and community. We grow when we're engaged, encouraged, and feel part of a project larger than ourselves. We behave best when we're not angry, scared or stressed. If these conditions don't occur naturally, they need to be created mindfully - through communication supports, social skills training, and inclusive lesson planning. So, the question shouldn't be: how do I support this student with "special needs"? - rather: how do we create classrooms and communities where ALL students are seen as learners and all humans feel welcomed, valued, connected, and challenged?
Presume Competence Students surprise us. They learn in diverse, non-linear, and unexpected ways. Many measures of "intelligence" fail to assess true abilities because of communication barriers and/or cultural biases. "Typical" students often present as unmotivated or disengaged - giving us little evidence they are able or willing to learn, but we keep teaching because we believe (we presume) they can learn, grow, achieve. Students with disabilities should be given the same benefit of the doubt and the same status as learners. The word "education" comes from the Latin "educare," meaning "to draw out." This means we see every student as a learner and make it our mission to draw out their gifts, talents, and abilities. We avoid assumptions based on a diagnosis and use caution when coming to conclusions because of what the student has "shown" so far. We presume every student can learn, grow, and achieve and assign ourselves the job of figuring out how. We might be disappointed from time to time, but more often we'll be surprised (and there's no real way to know except to try).
Start with Strengths "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." This quote is an internet favorite, often attributed to Albert Einstein, although there's apparently some doubt about whether he said it. In any event, I love the quote because I live it. If you saw me in the courtroom, I'm not sure you'd call me a "genius," but I'd like to think you'd see me doing something I'm pretty good at. If you saw me trying to fix anything around the house (or navigating without my GPS) .... eh, not so much. The point is that people are "smart" in different ways and all students learn best when educators pluralize instruction to engage with diverse student strengths. For students with disabilities, their Individualized Education Program ("IEP") must include a section on strengths, which should inform the types of supports and services the student receives. This also helps us do what my good friend Dr. Julie Causton calls "re-thinking" or "re-framing" students - a fidgety kid becomes a bodily-kinesthetic learner, a distracted daydreamer turns into an imaginative problem-solver, the class chatterbox is recognized as a student with strong interpersonal intelligence.
Get Into "Good Trouble" The late John Lewis, civil rights icon and member of Congress, encouraged us to "[n]ever, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble." In 1921, people with disabilities were routinely placed in institutions that were, in many cases, houses of horror. In 1971, very few students with disabilities attended public schools, with even fewer being included in general education classes and activities. The progress made since then happened because self-advocates, families, educators, lawyers, and legislators made "good trouble" and demanded better. There's much more to be done - which means we need to stay connected, remain courageous, and resolve that each day, each year should bring more inclusion, greater acceptance, and better outcomes for ALL students. 2021 - here we come!