What the Heck is "Inclusion" Anyways?
Inclusion can be defined in many ways. One of the most recent definitions listed by Merriam-Webster is “the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular school classes.” The act of inclusion can also be applied to after-school clubs, sports teams, shopping with their families, and general community events. The bottom line? Every activity has the potential to be inclusive.
The Lucky Few podcast is hosted by Heather Avis, Mercedes Lara, and Micha Boyett, three women who are mothers of children who have Down syndrome, and who promote advocacy for their kids and others who have Down syndrome. In their most recent podcast episodes, they spoke with Kristin Enriquez, an inclusion expert and education consultant who has a child with Down syndrome as well.
A Personal Experience with Inclusion
Enriquez advocates for inclusion now, but she didn’t always believe it was the right solution for kids with disabilities. She worked in an inclusive school as a student teacher and, like many, she believed that kids with disabilities would have more room to grow in a separate, specialized classroom.
After student teaching, she taught special education before making the switch to a general education classroom. Seeing the lag in her students abilities when taught in a separate classroom, as well as her own experience as a parent to a child with a disability, changed her mindset in both a personal and professional setting.
Why is inclusion so difficult for us to implement? Many people believe that we are being helpful by placing kids with disabilities in a space specifically for them - a place to belong. However, as a society, often don’t challenge the way we do things or push ourselves to be better because as the saying goes, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Enriquez challenges us to look past this mindset. How do we know that this is the best way to practice inclusion if we’ve never tried anything else?
What Does Inclusion Mean to You?
Enriquez dropped a bombshell part way through the podcast - she doesn’t use the term “inclusion.” Instead, she quotes an author who uses “inclusive practices” because the practices of inclusivity are what differentiates “being nice” with abiding by a civil right to equality.
Personally, she also prefers the term “access and opportunity” because this terminology focuses on the individual and their specific needs. Enriquez describes access and opportunity as having the ability to be involved in the community; being recognized as an individual and being able to satisfy your personal needs. This is a human need for every individual, regardless of ability.
Why Do We Place Limits on Children?
The concept of access and opportunity is further explored in the impact of early childhood education. Development is a growing process, meaning that it is not fixed at birth and we continue to develop the more we age. Something that can positively or negatively impact our development is our environment. Studies have shown that children with disabilities (Down syndrome specifically) have significantly more developed life and self-care skills when they are placed in a general education classroom rather than a specialized care classroom.
This increase of skills and abilities in a general education classroom can be attributed to many factors, but the main point is that it exists. The hosts of this podcast urge their listeners to try general education before considering specialized schooling because limits shouldn’t be placed on children based on what we believe their abilities to be. We limit children’s opportunities for growth and hinder our ability as a society to challenge norms when we simply keep doing what’s “always been done”.
Inclusion is Important for Every Child
Inclusive practices are not only important for those with disabilities, but for typically developing children as well. Exposure to those who are different than we are (especially at a young age) makes us less likely to hold biases, more likely to foster good relationships with others, and more likely to embrace our own differences.
As Enriquez says, “there are no prerequisites for inclusion,” the focus should simply be on the child’s ability to progress toward their goals in their classroom and the community. If they’re consistently growing and making progress, they’re exactly where they need to be. And this is a lesson that can truly be applied to children of all abilities.