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Dec 20, 2017

Guest Post: Becoming part of inclusive change

By Tanya Sheckley

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My daughter has cerebral palsy. There has been much written about the feelings of grief experienced by parents when they have a child with a disability. But while I never experienced grief for the loss of a “normal” child, I felt fear and sadness when thinking about what she would face, when I saw how many places would be inaccessible to her, and worse still, how cruel people might treat my sweet, observant, curious, loving girl. They wouldn’t understand her and would assume she couldn’t understand them. I felt sad to think that I couldn’t protect her from all of these things. We try to protect all of our children, but when your child has a disability, it makes that instinct to protect so much stronger.  These struggles would be hers and it was my job as her parent to give her all of the skills and confidence she would need to surmount them.

Then came the day to send her to school. We looked all over the world to find an appropriate program, where she could develop the skills necessary to become independent and the academics necessary to make her successful. The blocks of life were already stacked against her; we needed an environment where she could be fully supported to do her best. We didn’t find it. We searched specialty programs, private and public programs, and with no better option in hand we decided to send her to a school where she had been accepted by lottery.

I was terrified. I had a little girl who couldn’t walk and couldn’t talk. When I was in school as a child, I remember seeing kids who were different in a closed room in the back of the school, not integrated, not even in the same lunch hour. That wasn’t what I wanted for my curious, intelligent little girl.  But, I also was afraid of all that she couldn't tell me: if kids were mean, if she was feeling belittled, or even if she had a great day. I anxiously wondered what inclusion would really mean.

What happened next was beautiful.  You see, kids just see kids.  Seeing differences and judging those differences as good or bad is something we learn. Her classmates just saw another kid, who used different technology, who moved a little different and talked a little different. Each of them reached out and talked with her, worked with her on projects, walked with her at lunch, sat with her on the bus.  She wasn’t made fun of or ridiculed; she was popular.  It made me believe in people, it made me believe in education, it made me believe that her life could be better than I had feared.  It made me want to be a part of that change.

There are many different definitions for what it means to offer an “inclusive” education. Some think it is a special program within a school that “wheels in” students to one or two regular classes (often sitting in the back of the class by themselves), or “clustering” groups of students with disabilities in a regular class, or putting all of the kids with a 504 plan or IEP in one classroom most of the day, but taking them out at various times that suit the therapy team for services designated on the IEP. I don’t believe these situations are truly inclusive.  To truly be included, you must create an environment where everyone has the supportive tools and people that they need to fully interact in the lessons and activities. It doesn’t mean changing the activity to fit the kid, it means figuring out what the kid needs to participate in the activity.

It doesn’t mean modifying the curriculum to be accessible; it means creating accessibility within the curriculum.  It doesn’t mean taking students away from learning to focus on separate skills; it means building skills within the lessons and routines of school learning and life.  We believe inclusive education means having supports when they are needed to create as much equality, value, and skills as possible.  We believe it teaches all children to be resilient, patient, solve problems, and incite empathetic action.  An inclusive education provides programming, challenges, and opportunities for growth and learning to all students.

My experience taught me that most kids are wonderful people and given the opportunity will make excellent choices. Most kids are capable problem solvers who want to interact with other kids, learn, observe, create, understand, and share.  I hope we can change the reality of how society views differently-abled people. Inclusive education can create a generation who values all people and sees each person as a contributor to business, community, and society.  If we use education to teach values of equality and a mindset of possibilities, we can change the world to one where I don’t have to fear ridicule and cruelty any more than the average parent.

Kids just see kids. Let’s change the world to one where people just see people.

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About the Blog Author

Tanya Sheckley is a Social Entrepreneur, Speaker and Founder of UP Academy, an inclusive elementary school designed to support children of all abilities to become successful and independent.  She lives in the Bay Area with her amazing husband, two beautiful children and golden retriever.  

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