What it means in the world of special needs.

Several questions come to mind when people discuss inclusion. After trying to come to terms with what inclusion actually means we then have to accept the fact that it doesn’t mean the same thing to every child. Once we understand what it is we have to ask ourselves, is it right for my child? As the parent of three kids, one who has Down syndrome, I am particularly concerned with exploring the topic.

First, what is inclusion? Inclusion is an ideal not a blueprint. The simple answer is that inclusion is when your child with special needs is included with all of the other kids in their grade, class, sport, you name it. I think the best way to fully understand inclusion, however, is to explain the opposite of it­— when your child goes to a special school (often not in your neighborhood) and is taught in a specific classroom for special education children. In this model, children with special needs do not mingle with the rest of the school population and essentially spend the day in their classroom.

Inclusion can vary from your child having exactly the same schedule as every other child in the neighborhood school to having a few elective classes with the regular education population. In the latter example, children spend most of their actual “learning time” in their special education room.

At the heart of everything, inclusion is important because our children are humans with feelings, thoughts, hopes and desires. We have absolutely no idea what our children will want or what they will become if not given the chance. None of us knew what our abilities would be when we were young children. If someone else had put limits on us, we would never have realized our potential. Sometimes what makes us special is not a tangible or measurable thing. Sometimes what makes us special is a quality that can only be experienced to fully comprehend.

Of course, inclusion is a two-way street. To take part in the inclusive model, you have to be “included” into something. Kids in an inclusion curriculum take away life lessons that can only be learned experientially. Learning to accept someone regardless of how they look or how they speak is a lesson that cannot be underestimated. Kids who grow up learning to embrace our differences grow up to be more accepting and tolerant adults. The other part of this tolerance or acceptance is patience. Taking the time to get to know someone, to find out who they truly are, is a lesson many of us never learn.

Another benefit of inclusion is friendship. Children with different abilities need to learn to read and write, as well as to function in society. Likewise, having peers is a component in becoming an integral member of society. Unless you interact with a peer in an inclusive environment, you may never discover that this different looking person likes the same music and watches the same movies as you.

Our society is diverse. Diversity gives us strength in ways we may never have imagined. Embracing our differences makes our lives richer and fuller. I know that my life would be much poorer if not for my children, including my daughter with Down syndrome. I also know that my daughter’s life would be poorer without the friends she has made by being included in their lives. We took the time to be patient and let her blossom into the young woman she is becoming. My daughter’s friends took the time to realize how wonderful it is to have a pal like her who unconditionally cares about them.