Inclusion – the educational approach wherein students with special needs spend time with non-disabled students – was not a thing when I was in school. There were a handful of kids like my daughter Shelby at my elementary school, but they were kept completely separated. I would occasionally see them across campus, moving in a group from place to place, but I never interacted with them. And even though my school was small, I didn’t know most of their names. What wasted opportunities.
I grew up uncomfortable, even afraid, around people who were different than me. I had to be forced to spend time with a relative who was seriously injured in a motorcycle wreck. He loved people, but he was awkward and difficult to understand, so I didn’t want to be around him. It is embarrassing and painful to admit that, now that I have a child who is awkward and difficult to understand.
With the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Act came laws about LRE or least restrictive environment. This means that a student who has a disability (physical, mental or both) should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate. In Shelby’s case, she gets to go to regular art and P.E. classes with the assistance of peer buddies. She gets to go to pep rallies and eat in the cafeteria with everyone else.
I’m sure there are many reasons why this type of inclusion is beneficial for the special needs student, but I have come to believe that it’s even more beneficial for typically developing students. The Best Buddies organization is raising up a generation of kids who look for the blessing behind the disability. Students today have had classmates with special needs around them as long as they have been in school. It’s all they know. Where I was nervous and timid around the differently-abled, these teens jump at the chance to take my daughter to a dance, party or sporting event. Shelby calls them her “friends” and I truly believe that’s what they are. Caring for someone as impacted as Shelby takes a level of maturity and unselfishness that I certainly didn’t possess at that age. I see it in Shelby’s younger sister. She deals with a special needs sibling at home, and yet chooses to volunteer with the special education class at her middle school.
I am so thankful for the changes in our educational system and the programs that teach our youth that ALL people have value, regardless of ability.