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Reflections on School Inclusion

by David Wetherow

Michelle wrote: Emily, profoundly disabled, is going to transition to Kindergarten next year.... Anyone else have a child with severe CP and [in] regular Kindergarten? 

Hello Michelle, 

Amber, who just turned 20, has big-time CP, and was totally included in regular classes through grade 10. We've home-schooled for the past two years, but this decision wasn't related to any problems in inclusion. I need to let you know, so the rest of this makes sense, that Amber is really, Really, REALLY stuck. Things like head-pointing are out of the picture, etc. 

Shortly after she was adopted, Amber started entered the University of Winnipeg day care center - a wonderful setting. When it came time for kindergarten, the Winnipeg school division wanted to send her to a separate school, but her mom held the line and started looking for a kindergarten that would welcome her while the school division 'processed' the question. 

A good friend suggested, "Why don't you bring her to our school - Talmud Torah." This was a neighbourhood Jewish school with a great reputation. Faye said, "Judy, that's a wonderful invitation, but you know we're not Jewish." Judy said that she didn't think that would be a problem. So Faye brought Amber to meet the principal at Talmud Torah, a man named Larry Geller. 

Larry looked at this kid who appeared to be a huge mystery, who couldn't communicate with words, etc., and said, "I need you to know that we've never had a child with a disability in this school. I don't know anything about cerebral palsy. And I don't know anything about special education. But this kid needs sanctuary, and we do know something about that." 

The kindergarten teacher, the kids, and the other parents welcomed her. She participated in everything - listening in four languages, learning about traditions, music, colour, getting the same introduction to reading, etc. that all the other kids were getting. It was a wonderful year, and the next year, the Winnipeg school division said she could go to her regular neighbourhood first grade. The year at Talmud Torah was a powerful witness, and simply unraveled any argument that she couldn't be in a regular classroom. 

Each subsequent year, and at each subsequent school, the school figured it out. Amber had a series of great assistants. She knew that she belonged, and she learned. When made our last move and encountered a high school that didn't get it, we decided that we weren't going to put her through what was about to unfold. There weren't other high schools we could send her to, and she didn't have time for this one to have a complete transformation. 

In your letter, you said, "I don't want her to be in special ed, but I do want her to be pulled out for therapies during Kindergarten time when activities wouldn't be appropriate for her."  Instead of pull-outs', I'd encourage you to think about an approach that brings the specialists into the regular classroom, and incorporates the work they do into what's actually going on with the rest of the kids. This way, communication learning occurs in context. Physiotherapy, etc. occurs in context. 

This way, she doesn't become a mystery to the teachers and the other kids, and the specific support she needs doesn't become a mystery to the teachers and the other kids. They can be included as participants in what's going on with her, just as she's included in everything that's going on in the classroom. Communication occurs in the context of companionship. It's an interchange, not an isolated skill. The other kids in the classroom should be her communication partners. 

There is literally no part of the kindergarten environment, or kindergarten activity, that she can't or shouldn't be included in. The trick all the way through is a willingness to figure out, minute by minute, how to include her in what's going on. The specialist activity should be geared towards doing this, not pulling her out. As soon as somebody tries to talk you into the idea that there's something going on in the classroom that's not relevant to her, challenge it. 

Sooner or later, the class will do a 'volcano' project. What's crucial is that by the time that project comes along, everybody knows how to include her -- it's not even a question anymore. One kid makes the sign. Another kid makes a chicken-wire volcano shape. And a bunch of kids, including your daughter, get incredibly messy making papier-mâché. She helps paint the sides of the volcano with a big brush. All the kids learn about volcanoes, but the most important lesson is underneath the volcano project: How do we work together as a team? How do we figure out how to include the gift of every kid in making a great volcano?

When this is happening, the fact that she's not talking, the fact that she's using alternative methods of communication, becomes MEANINGLESS. Except that it doesn't -- it actually becomes a powerful lesson for everybody: She's one of us. Talking isn't as important as being together. Wow! there are a lot of ways to communicate! I can read her computer! We did a great project together. She's not alone. I'm not alone. I'm not alone....

Our friend Judith Snow reminds us: Talking is a gift. Not-talking is a gift. Moving smoothly is a gift. Having to have a lot of help in moving is a gift. Understanding quickly is a gift. Having to have a lot of help in understanding is a gift. Michelle, there is literally nothing, no characteristic, no disability, that should result in her losing this connection. Communication, physical, expressive, and yes, cognitive challenges are just that - challenges. They are also tremendous opportunities, for learning, for collaboration, for companionship. She will change lives!

With love, and encouragement,

Dave Wetherow

A little post script: Robert Fulgum (Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) teaches his university students about the game of Musical Chairs. We all played it when we were kids - remember? The weakest kid gets knocked off first. As the game progresses, more and more kids experience shame and humiliation and anger. Finally, the toughest, most ruthless kid 'wins'. Everybody else is a 'loser'. WHY WOULD WE DO THAT?

Fulgum proposes another version of the game, which he calls "Cooperative Musical Chairs". In the first round, the kids have to figure out how to get eight kids on seven chairs. Easy. In the second round, they have to figure out how to get eight kids on six chairs. By the time they're getting eight kids on four chairs, they're having to slow down, think about things, and really begin to work on the question of, "How do we keep the kid who can't see in the stack?" "How do we keep the kid who wiggles in the stack?" or "How do we keep Sarah in the stack?".

By the time they figure out how to get eight kids on one chair, they've learned a tremendous amount about each other and about themselves. Nobody's humiliated and everyone's having fun. The kids don't have to 'know' anything about blindness, or cerebral palsy, or IQ, to make this work. They do have to know something about Jeremy, and Aaron, and Sarah. And they learn what they need to know in the course of playing the game! Fulgum understands that six-year-old kids can learn to play Cooperative Musical Chairs.

Why would we expect less of our teachers? Why would we expect less of our schools?

© 2003 David and Faye Wetherow ! CommunityWorks

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