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Inclusion is not a new concept to society or education. The belief that all students, regardless of their background or abilities, should be included in the general education setting and in our communities has roots dating back over 50 years. Early efforts that laid the foundation for inclusion include the civil rights and disability rights movements as well as the signing of both the Americans with Disabilities and the Education for All Handicapped Children Acts. Each of these efforts and their supporters paved the way for inclusivity and showed that when we work together, change can happen. 

Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility.

Inclusion is our responsibility. And when I say “our,” I am not just talking about my colleagues in the special education profession or parents of children with disabilities. Instead, “our” refers to humanity’s responsibility as a whole. Inclusion is so much more than a buzzword, place, or IEP requirement. As a mom, advocate, and special educator, inclusion is a core value. It is a way for each of us to bridge a gap in our society through small acts for neighbors and friends as well as larger advocacy efforts. Our ultimate goal is full inclusion, a world in which we focus on our similarities, celebrate and appreciate our differences, educate ourselves, and learn from and listen to one another. An inclusive world is one in which we move beyond one month of awareness and acceptance and truly appreciate each other’s differences all year long.  

Disability and exclusion are not an exclusive club.

As a neurotypical person, I work on fostering inclusion by talking with my neurodiverse friends and colleagues, reading books, and digging into the history of disability and special education rights. Disability rights activist Judy Heumann once said, “I don’t think I felt, really, shame about my disability. What I felt more was exclusion.” Whether it was being picked last for a team in gym class, not being invited out to happy hour or book club, being unable to attend an event due to sensory concerns, or not receiving a position at work, exclusion is something each of us has experienced. So how can we utilize these shared experiences to make the world a better, more inclusive place for everyone? 

When we open the lines of communication and encourage dialogue between the disabled and non-disabled and the neurotypical and neurodiverse communities, we make everyone’s lives better and begin fostering inclusivity. Simply put, we should focus on the person and our commonalities rather than their disability.  

What do we do when the disability is “invisible”?

Recently, my daughter broke her leg while on a zip line at a playground. As a result, she earned a non-weight bearing cast, a wheelchair, and a new perspective. While she has missed a few play dates and cannot enjoy the last few weeks of summer in our local pool cooling off and having fun with friends, this event has not prevented her from accessing her local movie theater, library, or stores. She has been able to register for her new school, meet her teacher, and will start school on the first day with her peers. Thanks to pioneers like Judy Heumann and the Americans with Disabilities Act, she can easily access her school and community via cutouts in curbs, appropriately sized doorways, accessible bathrooms, etc. Overall, accommodating my daughter at school and in our community has been a relatively simple task because people are familiar with how to help someone in a wheelchair. But what if a person’s disability is not visible? What if not everyone understands how to best accommodate or set up an environment to include autistics, people with communication/hearing differences, or those with cognitive disabilities? 

To answer these questions, I returned to a recent conversation with my friend and a self-advocate whose opinion I value, Ben VanHook. “…The key to helping autistics become more included in our communities and schools is communication and advocacy,” he told me. “The more businesses, schools, families, friends, and the community learn about autism from an autistic perspective, the more change we can create.” There is a famous quote, “Nothing about us without us.” In order to drive systematic change, we need to support and learn from neurodivergency advisory panels, especially around employment and education, and include universal design for learning and living. The immediate result of including these conversations and strategies and opening the lines of communication with one another is understanding. To foster inclusivity, we need to start communicating with each other, listen more, and realize at the core, we are all similar.  

Inclusion is a core value.

As I mentioned early on, inclusion is not a place or single event; it’s a core value. As a teacher who has spent her entire career in special education, I am here to tell you we need to change how we talk about and implement inclusion. For example, inclusion in schools shouldn’t mean having autistic children eat lunch in the same cafeteria but at a different table than their same-aged peers. Rather, if appropriate for the children, have them participate in lunch room procedures with and eat lunch alongside their peers. This provides a model of the lunch room routine for the autistic student and allows the neurotypical students to learn about autism, how to support inclusion, and most importantly, how to be a good friend. As we all know, change takes time, but through education and resources like OAR’s Autism Tuned In and Kit for Kids, each of our small acts will make a big change. 

Carla Wyrsch is a graduate of William and Mary Law School’s Education and Advocacy Clinic, a Master IEP Coach®, and the director of school partnerships and resource management for TeleTeachers. She has devoted her career to working on teams that educate and advocate for children with disABILITIES. In addition to her work with children, she enjoys providing coaching sessions to both professionals and parents as well as volunteering for OAR and Partners in PROMISE.