From Frightening to Familiar
I would absolutely be lying if I said I was sold on inclusion right away. Let me set the stage for you: I was a first year teacher and I felt like I was constantly drowning. Drowning in work, drowning in the uncertainty of what to do in my classroom, drowning in the fact that I was never being the teacher I wanted to be for my kids. Enter Kayla. She is positive, fun, and energetic. She is the type of thing I NEEDED to survive at work. So, I spent time with her. A lot of time. And I began to discover she was an amazing teacher with some really “radical” ideas about her special education students and their true abilities. Ideas like her students could work in general education classrooms and should be included in general education activities. How can a student with severe autism and nonverbal communication engage in a reading activity with highly verbal third graders? I was uncertain, but I liked Kayla.
A week or two after meeting Kayla, I was desperate to fill some of my dreaded afternoon time in my classroom with a new extracurricular activity. I had seen some classes do a “buddy class” before where younger and older students worked together. It seemed like a good idea, so I asked around. I had a few people deny my request and I was running out of options.
It hit me: ask Kayla. It seemed a bit odd because Kayla only had seven students at the time and I had twenty-four. But, Kayla was ALL about it. Why not? I thought my students could be special helpers to her students and maybe we could all learn more about being better people.
We started having our classes meet weekly on Thursday afternoons. My students were so bewildered at first. Why did some of our buddies not use words? Why did our buddies randomly scream? Why were our buddies in their own classroom? These were all questions I received. Most of my students did not have words to put to the differences they saw in our buddies.
Honestly, I have learned SO much about how ignorance about something or someone can lead to unprecedented fear of that thing or person. Basically, the unknown is scary. My students were nervous around our buddies because they had not really spent any time with them.
We had many discussions about our buddies and ultimately spent more time with them. It’s amazing how exposure can turn things from frightening to familiar. My students eventually felt so at ease with our buddies and knew exactly how to help them when they were sad, include them in recess games, and guide them to participate in group activities. There were so many moments when I didn’t think any of the above would be possible. But that’s the thing about children, they don’t have preconceived notions about things. They don’t come into this world wanting to leave out people with disabilities. If you teach them, they see other humans as just humans. Future friends. Friends to play with. Friends to draw with. Friends to walk to lunch with. Tell them how someone with autism sees the world differently, but still likes basketball, and they could care less about their disability.
Ultimately, I learned from my own students that people with disabilities are just people. They deserve to be included into the society that fearfully discludes them, thinking it is best for them. Have we ever considered what is actually best for them? Is being separated what is best for someone? Granted, some students need different learning environments. I’m all for that. I’m not saying we need to take a student with a severe disability and stick them in the middle of an overcrowded third grade classroom. But, have we ever thought of inviting them on a field trip or to join an art project? And in the end, what’s best for us is to raise up the next generation knowing how to include everyone into their society. Knowing nothing different. Kayla and I have lots of stories to share! We would love to hear your comments or questions and we hope this opens your perspective a bit as well.