Lots has been written about inclusion. What it means, how it can be achieved and why it is important.
I am not an expert on the subject matter by any means, but as a parent who is quickly approaching the time when her child will reach 'school age', it is a topic that piques my interest.
Sometimes, I think that we over complicate the idea of what it means to be 'included'. Sometimes, I think that we think ourselves into circles, and finally think ourselves right out of it altogether.
In truth, inclusion can be often be very simple. Meeting a person where they are at, giving them the support and acceptance they need to navigate obstacles and focus on strengths, and ultimately helping them to achieve self-growth.
And it needn't happen in a classroom. In fact, inclusion can and should happen everywhere we go.
Today, we took Sam swimming.
This is not a new thing- we go almost every day. But today, I saw an example of inclusion at work. An ordinary setting, with ordinary people, doing ordinary things and making an extraordinary difference.
Sam really dislikes wearing his wrist band.
No wait- that doesn't go far enough.
Sam is incredibly uncomfortable wearing his wrist band. He fears it. Most of the time, he is so completely incapable of handling wearing it that he would rather not go swimming than put it on. (And that's saying a LOT because, if he had his way, Sam would live in the water.)
Where we go swimming, this has never been an issue. Not once. That's actually why we go there.
He is always offered the wrist band and, when he refuses, the staff members immediately (and casually) move to put his band on my wrist instead. No fuss. No questions. No expectations other than giving Sam a choice and respecting his ability and capacity to decide for himself.
It's simple. It's considerate. It's accommodation, at its finest.
And it's been going on this way for over a year. I think Sam was only two-and-a-half the last time he successfully wore a wrist band for the entire swim.
That is, until today.
Today, we walked up to the counter and Heather was there. Heather knows us- she sees us often- but we've never really chatted much before. She is very friendly, always warm and welcoming and I have thought more than once how lucky the centre is to have staff members like her.
Sam had two trains in his hands. A big Thomas train and a small steam engine. He placed them up on the counter as he often does. But this time, something different happened.
Heather said "Are those you trains, Samuel?"
"I really like the big one. Is his name Thomas?"
(momentary glance at her face)
"Does your other train have a name?"
(Hum and smile)
"I like that you brought your trains today, Sam. Do you think you might want to try wearing a wrist band today?"
He waits, and does not pull away. She leans forward, without removing the train from his hand, and gently places the band around his tiny wrist.
My mouth dropped. Her eyes sparkled. Sam looked at the band- taking in the experience of wearing it- and paused again.
I was waiting for him to say no. I was waiting for him to signal that he wanted it removed.
But these things did not happen. Instead, he smiled, hummed, flapped for a second, knowing that the next step was pool time.
Heather followed us to the change room hallway. I could tell that she was proud. I was proud. But mostly, I was grateful and impressed.
"You do understand," I told her, "the importance of what just happened."
And she said, "This is really big for him."
I smiled and responded that, yes it was. But it was also big for us, because it validated our belief that Sam- when given the right opportunity to build trust and to establish his level of comfort, will always meet and exceed our expectations. That the presumption of competency, a fundamental principle in our parenting, is the understanding that- with the right supports- Sam will continue to thrive.
I told her "You spoke to him. You built a relationship with him, and you called him by name. You validated his feelings and showed an interest in the things that interest him. You respected his language, respected his body, and respected his space. You made him feel safe and secure. And you empowered him to overcome his fear and discomfort. You made a difference for him, and for us, and reaffirmed that this is a place where he is respected and valued."
That, my friends, is inclusion. When you feel safe, respected and valued in your space. And it isn't restricted to those with disabilities. It is a feeling that we all need. We all want to feel included, part of the bigger whole. But we want this on our terms, in ways that we are comfortable with.
Inclusion isn't a set of policies. It is a mindset. It is the inherent belief that every single person has the right to feel validated and has the right to participate in society to the extent of their desire. It doesn't happen in policies and procedure manuals. It happens, every day, in ordinary settings, with ordinary people, doing ordinary things that make extraordinary impacts.
Thank you, Heather.