Widening the Circle
John, a quiet 12-year-old sixth-grader at your local middle school, goes through the cafeteria lunch line at noon. After he pays for his food and drink, he starts to put his tray on a table already occupied by other students. One of the boys at the table says, "Go away." John leaves the table and approaches the students at another table. There he is told, "Get out of here." John walks away and puts his tray down at a third table, realizes he's forgotten his straw, and goes back to the lunch line to get one. When he returns to the table where he left his lunch, he finds his tray gone.
John, a quiet 12-year-old sixth-grader at your local middle school, goes through the cafeteria lunch line at noon. After he pays for his food and drink, he starts to put his tray on a table already occupied by other students. One of the boys at the table says, "Go away." John leaves the table and approaches the students at another table. There he is told, "Get out of here." John walks away and puts his tray down at a third table, realizes he's forgotten his straw, and goes back to the lunch line to get one. When he returns to the table where he left his lunch, he finds his tray gone.Is there a problem here? If so, whose problem is it? What should the school do about this situation? Should John be removed from the school because others don't want to sit with him? How would you feel if John were your son?
Perhaps you'd think that the social climate in the school is highly problematic and that something should be done to build community and develop more appropriate social skills among the students.What if I told you that John is a student with a wonderful sense of humor, a love of mystery books, an impressive golf swing, and also, by the way, Down syndrome? Would your reaction change? Would you now see the situation differently? Would you say, "Oh, he's special ed!"
Or would you ask yourself, "If the students treat John this way, how do they respond to the girl who is overweight, the boy with severe acne, the student who has two lesbian mothers, or the girl who just arrived from Cambodia with limited English skills?"
Maybe you'd also think about all the other kinds of differences students bring to school, differences in race, class, language, sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity, wondering how the school addresses all kinds of kids and their families. No doubt you would find the other students' behavior inappropriate, unacceptable for future citizens of a global community.
This true story helps us think about the ways in which schools both mirror the broader society and create it. How might we use the story of John's mistreatment to think about how we want schools to be and what lessons we want our children to learn.
Inclusion is not about disability, nor is it only about schools. Inclusion is about creating schools--and a society--in which all children and their families feel welcomed and valued. Inclusion demands that we ask, "What kind of a world do we want to create and how should we educate students for that world?" "What kinds of skills and commitments do people need to thrive in a diverse society?"
Inclusion benefits all children by helping them to understand and appreciate that the world is big, that people are different, and that we can work together to find solutions that work for everyone. We live in an increasingly diverse world, and all people need to be comfortable and knowledgeable with people who vary in terms of a host of characteristics. It's important to speak more than one language, to understand how to help others who are having trouble and to accept help yourself, to resolve conflicts, to work together to challenge injustice.
Inclusion teaches us to think about "We" rather than "I." Not "Will there be anything for me to eat?" but "How can we make sure there's a snack for everyone?" Not "Will I have friends?" but "How can I be aware of the children here who don't have anyone to play with?"
When we are surrounded by people who are different from us, we are forced to ask questions that go beyond the individual and address the community and its diversity. When we have friends who use wheelchairs, we notice that there are steep stairs and no ramps. When we have friends who wear hearing aids, we listen differently to comments like, "What are you, deaf or something?" When we have friends with different skin colors, we become more alert to racist and exclusionary comments. When we have friends from different religious backgrounds, we are more aware that the decorations in the mall are about only one religion, the songs on the radio affirming only one way of being in the world.
It's very hard to learn to be comfortable with difference in the absence of diversity. Every parent I have met wants his or her child to grow up to be able to move through the world with confidence and skill, and much of that will depend on the kind of education they have received.Inclusion is not a "favor" for students with disabilities. Inclusion is a gift we give ourselves, the gift of understanding, the gift of knowing that we are all members of the human race, and that true joy comes in building genuine relationships with a wide range of other people.
Inclusion also means that we pay careful attention to issues of social justice and diversity. How do children talk to one another? Do they help one another? Is there teasing or exclusion going on? Teachers spend considerable energy helping students understand their own and others' differences and children are encouraged to ask respectful questions and to learn about one another.Helping is considered essential in the classroom, and time is spent teaching students to support one another through peer mentoring, collaborative learning and other forms of peer support. In inclusive classrooms, it matters how people treat one another. Learning to live together in a democratic society is one of the most important goals and outcomes of inclusive classrooms. How could any of us want anything else for our children.
Mara Sapon-Shevin is the mother of two adult daughters and professor of inclusive education in Syracuse University's School of Education. This article is drawn from her recent book, Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007). She will give a reading and sign books on Sept. 26 at the River's End Bookstore in Oswego and on Oct. 16 at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in DeWitt. For more details, see the Calendar.