You already know we’re all here because we want to answer the question, “How do we start schools that aren’t already inclusive?” We all come from different backgrounds and entry points, but share the mission of creating a more inclusive world. It’s a lofty goal, and yet it’s one I’m willing to spend my whole life supporting and working toward.
That’s because it’s not only what I work toward as a former early intervention specialist turned education writer and advocate.
Inclusion is also a very personal issue for our family. All of us—my three children, my husband, and I—are what people sometimes to refer to as neurodivergent. Our brains all function in a way that are different from the shared standards of “normal,” be it due to anxiety, sensory processing issues, ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
As an educator and a parent, I often find myself in the position of having to make the case for inclusion. I’m starting to realize that’s part of the problem: We shouldn’t have to be making the case for inclusion.
Inclusion isn’t something we should have to make a case for. We shouldn’t have to convince other people of the value of belonging.
We should be making the case for not having to make the case for inclusion.
There’s no reason we should be trying to convince people to buy into the notion that every student has strengths and challenges and deserves an equitable opportunity to learn.
I don’t believe any school should be creating a definition of inclusion that begins by looking only at one student’s needs.
I shouldn’t be writing emails to my school board asking them to take an inclusion specialist out of the “unmet needs” category of the budget, using my sons as an example and using the oxymoronic phrase “fully included in the general education classroom.” Doesn’t the word “included” already imply fully?
We hear the word “inclusion” often, but what does it really mean?
In 2015, when the #BetterTogether movement began, Tim asked thought leaders in the field of inclusion to describe their dreams of inclusion with a capital “I.” Their answers are as notable for how much they vary as they are for how easily they build on top of each other like LEGO blocks to create a diverse and full picture of inclusion.
Inclusion is a hard concept to think about, let alone talk about and define. Once you start thinking about it, it becomes clearer that the way we tend to think about inclusion is by starting from a place of exclusion. We identify the ways in which students could be excluded and try to remove those barriers.
I once gave a keynote speech for a group of early childhood educators on the topic of inclusion. I was kind of a newbie speaker and had a PowerPoint ready to go, things to say, points to make and pontificate about. But first I asked the group a question:
“How do you define inclusion?”
As they answered, I quickly threw out the PowerPoint. I set aside all of my big, important points and just listened—really, truly listened. We began a conversation and I heard stories about the challenges of building inclusive programs inside programs that already existed. I heard about successful inclusive programs that were built from the ground up.
I learned about parents who were afraid to have their child in the same classroom as children with disabilities. I learned about parents who were afraid to have their child with disabilities in a classroom with neurotypical kids.
That audience and I talked for nearly two hours. We talked through real-life challenges and realized together there are no easy answers. I stayed far beyond my keynote speech and had lunch with the group. As I sat in this room full of well-intentioned educators all willing to be vulnerable, I realized I felt at home in a way I couldn’t put into words.
Maybe it was having a shared mission or similar backgrounds, but I felt accepted and at ease in a way that didn’t even register with me until weeks later when I was telling somebody about that day.
That’s what inclusion is. It’s what we all want and are striving for—the feeling that you are at ease and belong without even having to think about it. It never once occurred to anybody in that room that I had to make the case for why I belonged there.
I didn’t have to talk through the ways in which I could possibly be excluded and solve for them. I was simply accepted for who I was.
Inclusion occurs when difference isn’t a defining characteristic, it’s something that exists in all of us. Our shared vulnerability, our humanity and the things we all have in common creates a feeling of community. It creates a sense of belonging that we don’t have to work for. In fact, we don’t even notice it.
Inclusion isn’t something we should have to make a case for. We shouldn’t have to convince other people of the value of belonging. Inclusion begins when schools begin to embrace learner variability and its supporting framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)— a way of thinking about teaching and learning that gives all students equal opportunity to learn.
Retrofitting education to meet the needs of a student or a group of students isn’t inclusion, and if we continue to think about inclusion on a case by case basis—or even as something we need to make a case for—we’re failing to look at what inclusion truly is.