Monday, 10 October 2011

Kids, Disabilities and Teaching/Learning about Inclusion

I've been thinking about society and inclusion.

Is Inclusion Valued in Our Society?

It's always interesting, seeing how kids react to my disabilities. Kids on the street tend to stare, which really embarrasses their parents. I can hear the kids says things to the effect of, "Mommy, what's wrong with her?" or "Mommy, why does she have a cane?" and the parents quietly hushing them: "Don't stare."

When I get the opportunity, I just tell curious kids that my leg doesn't work very well and that I need my cane to help me walk, and that satisfies most of them. The parents usually apologize, and I tell them not to; I tell them that I'd rather kids ask questions than think that there's something mysterious and scary about my cane that they shouldn't talk about. I think this surprises a lot of people. They'd probably be even more surprised to know that in my head I'm thinking: "And at least kids openly stare rather than stare and try to hide the fact that they're doing it."

Giving Kids Resources to Embrace Inclusion

The fact is, if we're going to live in a society that embraces inclusion of *all* people with differences, we need to give children space to question and talk and develop the skills and vocabulary that they need to live in that society...and be patient when they're not as sensitive as they should be. For my nurse friend Callie (named changed) at Penetanguishene, this meant sitting down and talking to her four-year-old daughter about how she'd meant to ask me why I was in a wheelchair, not a wheelbarrow, and what the difference between the two of them was. For me, it meant holding back my laughter when a kid at the elementary school at which I was a supply Educational Assistant for an afternoon jeered at me, "You use a cane...", as if 1) I didn't know it already and 2) He'd happened upon the ultimate insult.

"Yes," I said calmly, thinking, What's the best response to this? After a split-second of hesitation, I said, "Jealous?"

He was clearly taken aback. He stared at me for a moment, and then said, "Uh...yeah."

Lesson learned, sonny, I thought, moving on to my next class.

Learning Lessons From Kids about Inclusion

Not that kids haven't had lessons to teach me, too. In my work as a supply EA, I generally told the kids that asked what had happened, that I had to use a cane, that I'd had an accident, but I was fine now. I didn't want to scare them with stories of bleeding brains and me having my head cut open, etc. But one kid, about eleven years old and in a special education class, did not want to let it go.

Had I been in a car accident? he wanted to know. No, I said.

Snowmobile? Jetski? Motorbike?

I finally explained to him that I'd had a problem in my brain and they'd had to do some surgery on it, and the surgery had caused some problems...but that I wasn't in pain and I was getting better everyday.

"Well, why didn't you just tell me all that to start?" he said, disgusted.

I'm starting to wonder that myself, I thought.

I underestimated kids going into that job. They're smart.  They intimidated me in a way that no high school student ever did, and they taught me a lot.

But I underestimated high school students too. I always worried that the high school kids with intellectual disabilities that I worked with didn't have enough friends in the high school, but they always got a loud, long round of applause from the student body when they crossed the stage at Graduation. And it was always the toughest, most bad-ass students that fell over themselves to hold open doors for me when I visited the high school.  Kids are learning that inclusion is a good thing.

Don't get me wrong.  Inclusion definitely isn't being embraced in our cultural institutions as quickly as a lot of us would like. Both kids *and* adults with disabilities get bullied. There's a lot of intolerance out there.  We've got to start this education process of "different does not equal bad" early, give kids opportunities to learn and question, and keep our own hearts and minds open as we educate them...because they've got a lot to teach us about inclusion too.

Lots of stuff to think about...


  1. Hey Sarah,

    that was a thoughtful and interesting piece somewhat in line with our other discussion about being "other".
    Diversity, in all its many forms, has achieved a status and a value as a desirable objective far more than it looked like it ever would even twenty years ago. (Yay!) It seems such a no-brainer to appreciate what people with varied life experiences can bring to every occasion. Frankly, we oddballs are the perfect addition to any party!
    I guess we just have to keep talking about inclusion and the value of difference and not let it be taken for granted or assumed.
    I am SO GLAD you are out of that wheelbarrow!

  2. Good points, well made.

    There is something about kids honesty that I really like - I too tell kids my legs don't work too well when they ask - and reassure the parents. And once a kid knows, they usually absorb it into their view of the world without problem. And once it is part of their world, the next one they see is unexceptional.

    It was partly to try and help with this that I'm launching my books next saturday - Welly Walks and Biscuit Baking. Kids picture books featuring wheelchair users.


  3. It *does* seem to be like a no-brainer that diversity should be something that we appreciate and welcome. I'm really encouraged by some of the things that I've seen in the last little while, on a social level....I guess that's what makes it even more infuriating when I see something like "Fox and Friends" comments about Chaz Bono (I think the post is still on the front's called "When Professionals Become Bullies"). But we soldier on, right? :)

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    - Sarah

  4. Hi Hannah

    Yes, you're right - you do some explanation the first time a kid encounters something, and the next time they think, "Oh just like my friend..." and leave it at that. I think researchers call it "constructing schemas" and kids' brains seem to do it more easily that adults' brains do.

    Congratulations on being published! Will your books be available on the Internet?