I've read lots of stories about inclusion classrooms that end something like this..."As I left the room, I said to the teacher 'But you told me this was an inclusion class! I didn't see any kids in there with special needs!' and the teacher smiled and said 'But there were, and I'd challenge you to figure out who they were!'" The point of the story always is that we have so many preconceptions about children with special needs, but in reality, they are JUST LIKE the rest of kids, and if you just put them in a classroom with typical peers, they will blend totally in! Well, if you visited Janey's classroom, unless you are unusually clueless, you would not tell that story. Janey doesn't blend in. She isn't exactly like all the other kids, unless you are looking at a still photo with one of her smiling face poses. It would only take a minute or two for anyone to figure out that yes, she's one of the special needs kids. And that is what I consider true inclusion.
I've been thinking about this a lot the last few days, because of my happiness over how the school year is starting with Janey, and how in general her remarkable school and teachers handle inclusion. Here's a few examples----
Last night was the curriculum night at school. I always go to that night, and although I've never felt unwelcome, I've often left feeling sad. This is not because of anything anyone did wrong, but just because the main line curriculum is not something Janey can access much. The classes she's in consist of about 25 kids, of which around 4-6 are on IEPs (I don't know the exact number, because that's not my business, and I am sure there are some kids that DO blend in), so most of the class is working at a normal grade level. I hear about all the reading and math and history and science and testing the year will bring, and I am very happy she's going to a school that teaches at the high level it does, but I am left feeling a little empty---wishing Janey was going to be learning those things too. When Janey's teacher asked me if I was going last night to the curriculum night, I said "Um, maybe.." which she knew enough to know meant no. And she said "Please come---we are personalizing the night" I went, because I was intrigued, and indeed, that is just what they did. Each parent sat at their child's desk, and each place had a decorative guide to exactly what that child's curriculum was like, personalized. We all got a chance to read that, and then just to talk to the parents of the kids our kid sits with. It was wonderful. I love hearing about the other kids in Janey's class, and I love talking about Janey. In the background, there was a slide show of pictures from that very day in class, showing what the kids were doing, and I was able to see Janey right there with the rest. The teachers were available to answer questions, and I left feeling very, very happy.
A piece of inclusion that often gets lost in the shuffle is the regular education kids in the class. It's very important to me that they also benefit from inclusion, and at Janey's school, I feel they do. The extra resources that having a lot of kids with special needs around bring in benefits all kids---there are speech therapists, OTs, PTs and lots of other helpers in and out of the class, and also two teachers and an aide, and often a student teacher. It's no coincidences that for several years in a row, the Henderson School has been the top performing school in Boston on the state testing. But I think it's more than academic. The kids learn to accept that there are those among us who need more help, and they learn to give it, and to feel good about themselves for giving it. There's a new girl in Janey's class who took to her immediately, and who Janey has taken to also. She is treating Janey like a friend---playing little games with her, chasing her, sneaking up behind her and saying "guess who?"---all that. For a little bit, I wondered if she somehow hadn't noticed that Janey spoke very little, if she didn't see her autism and intellectual disability. As if she had read my mind, the girl stopped me as I was leaving Janey in the room the other morning and said seriously "I've only been at this school a little while, but I know how things work. I have a cousin like Janey" Somehow, that filled me with an extreme happiness. She was telling me that she liked Janey WITH Janey's needs---she was aware of them, but Janey didn't need to be "normal" to be worthy of friendship. That is an attitude her school promotes, and it's a crucial part of true inclusion.
I often wonder how much Janey understands about herself. Does it matter to her that she be with all kinds of kids, that she do "normal" things? Would she be just as happy in a separate classroom? I partly answer that by seeing her after a day of summer school, which is separate. All reports were she had great teachers this summer, but she didn't have the spark, the joy, that a day at the Henderson gives her. And last week, I saw how much she does get when she had some homework---very appropriate homework she could do. When I told her it was time to do homework, and we sat down at a desk to do it, she was thrilled. She has heard the boys talk about homework a million times, and suddenly---it was her turn! She did it willingly and to the best of her abilities. I think being in a classroom with regular routines---saluting the flag, reading groups, recess, homework---all the things we remember from school---is very satisfying to her.
Inclusion is not easy. This is the 25th year the Henderson School has been inclusive, and I am sure there are still things everyone is learning. But done right, it doesn't have to be a situation where success means you can't tell who the special needs kids are. It can be a situation where the very fact that some of the kids have extreme special needs is a boon to everyone.