When I came across this cartoon, I could not believe how true and relevant it is to my professional experience. You see, this past year, I had the opportunity to work with an amazing little girl. She is funny, she is bright, she is interested & interesting, and she is a totally unique child. I am lucky enough to have her in my group this year! I love working with her, but I love what she teaches me about welcoming diversity into the school and running an inclusive class setting. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. At six years old, she is driving her chair better than many twenty-old drivers. She is in and out of tight spaces, up and down on the playground equipment, and can independently play a game of tag. Amazing!
But, it was not always so amazing and it is still pretty awful at times. Not surprising, there are many obstacles for my student to overcome. The largest two obstacles are the physcial school building & the staff. She advocates for herself, her parents advocate for her, and I advocate for her. However, our school is old and it is not the most inviting spot for any child, especially one in a mechanical wheelchair. Every hallway has multiple doors that the fire marshal insists stay closed, there are stairs (no ramp) leading to the front door, the school sits in the middle of a large, often wet, field, door frames just barely fit her child-sized chair (like 1/2 inch clearance) and the one accessible parking spot is chained off from the school yard. Hmmmm??!!! More frustrating than old school buildings that will never be made accessible, despite the inclusion policy, is the mindset of some of the staff. It breaks my heart to hear some of the paraprofessionals say they refuse to work with her because she may run over their feet or a special ed teacher suggest tying a large bright flag to the back of her chair so everyone can see her coming. My response is it is a BIG LOUD CHAIR, you can see it, you can hear it, so move your feet. Some staff have gone as far as to not move until she almost runs over their feet and then they come and complain to me about how this child does not pay attention. Again, I say it is a BIG LOUD CHAIR, you can see it, you can hear it, so move your feet. We are not testing her, we are teaching her!!!! Grrrrr!!!!
In classroom assignment planning sessions, two teachers came out and said 'I don't want X in my class because then I cannot do flexible seating and set up the room the way I want to'. Hmmmm??!!!
At reading time, we give her an ipad so she can turn the pages herself. This little thing allows her to keep flow in her reading, read independently, and focus on reading. She has limited use of her hands in terms of fine motor skills, but using an ipad is doable. Yet, when she was put in a remedial reading program, she fell even further behind. WHY? because she was not allowed to use an ipad, she had to use a physical book and turn the pages herself. After chatting with the reading coach and explaining about this necessary adaptation, she was okay to deviate from the one-size-fits-all script.
When a school-wide field trip was planned by the administrators, it was not until two days before that they realized there was not transportation for this student. She could not simply go on any school bus, she needed an accessible bus. Once the bus was finally scheduled, I had to fight to allow other students to go on the accessible bus with her. The administrators worried that sending peers with my student would make them feel like they missed out on the bus experience. Ummmm.....what about X?
It is very frustrating to see this happen to any child. It is even more frustrating when you realize it is not an isolated event. It happens every day all over the world for children and adults who fit outside of societal norms. Yet, in an inclusive and diverse environment, why do we still have societal norms? Why do we still have to fight to ensure all our students are treated fairly and given an appropriate and just education. We call our school and our societies inclusive, but we have not changed our actions, and in many cases, our mindsets are not inclusive yet. I do not believe that the above situations are done to hurt my student, but rather, they happen out of ignorance. We are all on the journey to becoming more inclusive and building an inclusive mindset. Our inclusive mindset is demosntrated through our actions, our words, and our thoughts. It is a journey and I am not sure there is a concrete destination.
We are all at different locations on this journey. We have different experiences and our narratives are individual. Despite saying we are inclusive, we have different abilities and different ways to demonstrate how we are inclusive, how we think inclusively, and how we support diverse individuals. When I am frustrated that my colleagues seem to isolate this particular student, I remind myself I cannot blame them. We are all at different levels of our inclusive thinking and our inclusive actions. What can I do to support my colleagues in becoming more inclusive in their teaching? I cannot change the physical building (I only have a teacher salary!), but I can set up my room in an accessible way that includes 'flexible seating', traditional desks, and allows for easy access for all my students. I use it as my authentic example everyday. Also, I can share with teachers about when it is okay to break from 'the script' to support a student's learning and independence.
If a colleague is not teaching as inclusively as they ought to, I cannot change them, but I can support them and provide them with strategies, materials, and resources that will guide their journey. One thing that inclusion creates is a positive, collaborative and welcoming environment. It is not my place or my professional duty to criticize other teachers for their lack of inclusivity, but it is my professional duty to help guide them in a supportive way. From my year with student X, I learned a lot about how to change the little things. She does not need different work or an alternative schedule, she needs a teacher and a school community that looks at the world through her eyes, or at least with her in mind. As frustrated as I became from the above situations, I learned to advocate and change some of my daily practices to ensure she was a full member of my classroom.
It is the little things we change that can have the biggest impact in creating inclusive classroom environments.