Common Myths About Disability Inclusion [Avoiding Inclusion Pitfalls]

Debunking Myths in Disability Inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Inclusion: the action or state of including or being included within a group or structure

This term (inclusion), when applied to education, is meant to capture an all-encompassing societal ideology. Inclusion is meant to secure opportunities for students with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms.

However, interpretations and approaches vary widely. I believe that inclusion is a state of mind, a belief system that guides us to ensure a true sense of belonging. Inclusive education is ensuring that ALL students have equal access to curriculum and meaningful learning experiences.

Nevertheless, there is no blueprint for how to make this happen on a practical level in schools. As a result, each state, district, school, and even teacher may have a slightly different understanding of what an inclusive classroom is, let alone how to create one.

Below are the four most common myths and misconceptions that have become barriers to the widespread implementation of inclusive education

Change is Scary {Why We Must Embrace Change to be Inclusive}

Do you fear change? Do you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of helping your school, organization, or community become more inclusive?

It made a difference for that one; Removing the Stumbling Block

It's not unusual to feel uneasy or intimidated by the magnitude of a significant undertaking. It can be that "inclusion" feels so huge that you do not even know where to begin; so you don't. 

Even knowing that change needs to happen you may not know how to go about delivering it. Where do you start? Whom do you involve? How do you see it through?

What really matters is that you start somewhere. Small steps CAN make a difference.

A favorite story:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who took walks on the beach every morning. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. 
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

Helping to move your faith organization toward inclusion may seem like throwing back all the starfish on the beach, but it genuinely is ok to start with the starfish you can reach.  

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New Research Supports a Shift in Language Use - Why We Should Stop Using the Phrase Special Needs

Language use is top of mind for me lately.

Changing one’s language is a necessary and significant step in affecting lasting culture change; Removing the Stumbling Block

Maybe this is because it’s the time of year to focus on year-end forms and registration for next year. Maybe it’s because there’s more and more being written about language use as it pertains to gender and sexuality and I find myself thinking about how I believe the Disability Inclusion Movement lags behind by about 5 or so years. Or maybe it’s because I am just a self-professed grammar nerd and think about the nuances of language use on a regular basis. Probably it’s some combination of the three.

Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s the difference?

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Removing the Stumbling Block

Over eighteen years ago my synagogue hired me as the Religious School’s Special Needs Consultant. Within a year that title changed to Special Needs Coordinator. A subtle shift, but one that we believed demonstrated our commitment to the permanence of our program. Today I serve as a full-time Education Director with oversight of our disability inclusion efforts. But if anyone asks me what I do for a living, my reply is typically that I am a Jewish Educator and a Jewish Inclusion Expert.

Why so much focus on the semantics? Isn’t it just a job title after all? Isn’t the work far more important than the label we attach to it?

A number of years ago my congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore creating a support group for parents and grandparents of children with disabilities. When I helped to edit the invitation, I chose to write “parents and grandparents of children with disabilities”, believing that it would make our message clear and would help to draw participation from the larger community. However, a member of the planning committee, a mother who’s son is on the autism spectrum, immediately wrote and asked me to change it to “special needs” because “it seems less harsh than the term disability; disability just has a more negative connotation”.

Is that true? Does disability really conjure up negative images? 

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Maybe that is why we have to celebrate when a young girl with Spina Bifida is on the cover of Parents Magazine:

Or when a boy with Cerebral Palsy and his brother are Sports Illustrated Kids Stars of the Year?

I feel sad that these aren’t just “normal” occurrences in our society yet and work hard to advance the advocacy necessary to change such perceptions.

So I reflect on that parent's belief that “special needs” is much gentler than “disability”, and wonder if gentler is better? Or is it more likely that we are perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?

There are many who will advocate the latter, that the euphemisms must go. Here's one from Emily Ladau: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust. And she is not alone. Many disability self-advocates argue that terms like special needs must be eliminated from our discourse to advance true inclusion.

I don’t have all the answers. While I respect the desire of the disability community and use the term disability almost exclusively in my writing and my work, I acknowledge that others disagree and have other preferences. 

Nevertheless, I will say this: The work I am honored to do is most definitely special. Maybe that’s enough.

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