Back when I was teaching school (and before that), mainstreaming was the term you heard to describe special education in the schools. Mainstreaming meant that special needs children were typically educated in special classrooms according to their level of ability with the goal being to prepare them for participation in the regular classroom one day.
Mainstreaming began to get a bad rap because it seemed that the concept implied that special needs learners must change in order to become "ready" or deserving of education in a regular classroom.
In education circles today, inclusion is the big thing.
Inclusion is simply a fancy term that means that special needs children spend most or all of their school day with non-disabled students - sitting right there in a regular classroom with typical peers. The concept behind inclusion is every child has a right to participate and the school has a duty to accept the child. It's all about full participation and the respect for social, civil, and educational rights of all students.
In a perfect world of inclusion, there would be no special schools or classrooms to separate students with disabilities from those students without disabilities.
It sounds lovely. But I'm not sure that I'm fully on board with inclusion. And here's why:
I went to school. I taught school. I come from a family of teachers. I know kids. And I'm just not sure that kids have respect for the social, civil, and educational rights of each other, let alone a kid with special needs.
Bottom line - kids can be flat out mean. Sometimes without even trying or without knowing.
One of my blogger friends recently wrote how her daughter, who we'll call LM, has such a hard time approaching and speaking to peers. LM recently managed to get up the courage to ask a little friend if she wanted to swing with her. The friend's answer? No. Now I don't think that little girl was intentionally being mean. She probably just didn't want to swing. But that little friend had absolutely no idea how hard LM worked to get that out. And then to be told no. Devastating.
I know that all kids need to be taught respect and value of life and that we are all no better than anyone else, but I just don't think that forcing inclusion is the answer.
Here's what I mean:
Take a neighborhood, for example.
Now, I'll be honest, I'm not known as one of the friendliest people in my neighborhood. I'll smile and wave and that kind of thing. But if after visiting a few times while mowing the grass or whatever, I realize that my neighbor and I really have nothing in common, I'm not going to pursue a friendship. Just because we happen to live next door to each other is not enough to build a relationship. Right or wrong, that's how I feel.
I tend to look at the inclusive classroom as a "neighborhood". Just putting these kids together in the same room does not mean that everyone is going to be accepting and nice and friendly. Oh sure, there may be smiling and waving, but relationship? I'm just not sure.
Maybe I'm not expressing enough confidence in today's typical kids. I really do know lots of nice kids who are respectful and don't bully or make fun of others.
But I'll tell you this: Lily is not a easy kid to play with.
I would imagine that most of her peers in a regular classroom would give her about two or three opportunities to participate in something with them, like playing tea party or painting, and then simply give up when they see she's not paying them any attention, won't talk to them (because she can't), or not playing the way they want her to.
Nor do I really expect them to keep trying. I know that Lily needs to learn how to be a good playmate. How to take turns. How to play appropriately. And that a friend may not always want to play the same thing you do. I know all this.
Of course, ideally, the teachers would be there to help guide this process along but we're talking about kiddos. How many five year olds, even with the help of a teacher, are going to be patient enough to see a task through to its conclusion when it takes twice as long because Lily gets so distracted? And teachers can't possibly see, hear, and do everything that needs to be done in an inclusive classroom.
And teenagers? Wow. I just don't know. I haven't had to deal with this yet. Can't even think about this yet.
So we're all trying to get special needs children included. And I'm in agreement with that. I certainly do not think that special needs children need to be sequestered away in some kind of special environment and have no contact with the outside world.
But at the same time, one of the moms in my groups shared something that stuck in my heart.
This particular mom has a child with severe epilepsy and he is also blind. He recently informed his mother that he wants to attend Texas School for the Blind as a student in their daytime program. A special school full of students just like him. No typical kids around to serve as peer models. No inclusion. In fact, the polar opposite of inclusion.
Something that us parents also have mixed feelings about because we so long for our children to be an accepted member of society.
Can you feel my wishy-washiness? Do you think I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth? Inclusion? Separation? Acceptance? Rejection? What's the answer??? I don't know.... I'm open to hearing your thoughts.
Anyway - this sweet mom shared a story that changed her mind about letting her child attend the Blind School. She heard a 20-something year old man speak, who also happened to be blind. He said that while he did have friends, he had always struggled along, trying so hard to prove that he could do everything that his peers could do, trying to find his place and be "included". But, after college, he ended up with a job at the Blind School, the very one my friend's son wants to attend.
And here's what this successful young man said:
"For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found the place where I belonged."
Isn't that what most of us want in life? A place to belong? A place where we feel like we're loved and accepted for who we are? A place where we don't always feel like we have to prove that we belong there as much as anyone else? A place where we don't always have to work so hard and we can "just be"?
I don't know the answers. And I'm not going to get hung up on inclusion or mainstreaming or special schools or...
Because one day, years from now, Lily will find that place where she belongs. And I'll be happy if she's happy.
But for now?
She belongs with me.
And her dad.
And Ryley and Reagan.
And that's the best kind of inclusion I can think of.