The Importance of School Inclusion
Last year, I was given the opportunity to speak to a group of teachers about the benefits and importance of the inclusion of disabled kids in mainstream schools (school inclusion). By the time I was three years old, my parents started looking into pre-school options for me because I was driving them crazy! I was smart and curious, and I wanted everyone to bring me everywhere so that I could see EVERYTHING. I was bored all the time. I obviously needed something else to stimulate my brain, and my poor parents were exhausted.
Because of my physical disability, more than one mainstream school turned me down. They believed that I belonged in a special ed environment, not one with a normally-abled student body. The problem was that a large majority of the students at special education schools have mental disabilities as well as physical ones, and I would not get the socialization and the mental challenges that I needed.
After much investigating, my parents found a private catholic school that was willing to allow me to enroll in the twos and threes program. I remained there through kindergarten, when (for a number of reasons), I moved to St. Paul’s Episcopal School, which I would call my second home for eight years. St. Paul’s is a special place, and I still feel like I’m going home every time I go back and visit. I made some of my closest friends there, and I still look to many of my grade school teachers as mentors today. The best thing about St. Paul’s was that I was always included as much as physically possible in all student activities, and I was never treated any differently than my peers. Certainly there were accommodations made for me to function in a mainstream setting, but I never felt like an outcast. The headmaster (RIP Mr. H.) was one of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and he truly took care of me to the best of his ability. Even though I was the only student with a visible physical disability in the school of 250, I rarely saw myself as “the one in the wheelchair.” I was a great student, and I was able to learn social etiquette as any normal preteen and teenager would. Yes, I had to have an aide with me all the time, and yes, there were moments where I was frustrated that I couldn’t be included in certain activities, but those times were relatively few and far between. Certainly I was left out of cliques here and there, but what teenage girl isn’t?
After graduating eighth grade, I moved on to Benjamin Franklin High School, the best high school in Louisiana (academically speaking). The same accommodations were made for me there as at St. Paul’s, and the situation was much the same. The principal made sure that I had everything I needed to thrive, and many of my friends from St. Paul’s attended Franklin as well. It wasn’t like completely starting over since there were people around me that I knew. I took as many AP classes as I could possibly handle (five in my senior year alone) and graduated with honors. Again, I keep in touch with much of the Franklin faculty today. Several of them are like family. I then attended Loyola University New Orleans where I graduated summa cum laude with a BA in graphic design. The rest is history!
I think that my peers benefited as much as I did from me being enrolled in a mainstream school. The kids I went to school with never stared at other disabled people in public. They learned at an early age how to interact with people who are different, and that it’s okay for everyone to have their differences. I think that it enriched their childhood a little bit, and taught them some really good lessons that they took with them into adulthood (hopefully). Practicing school inclusion with kids from a young age teaches them valuable lessons they won’t learn anywhere else (at least not effectively).
I’ll tell you this: I certainly would not be where I am today if I hadn’t grown up with able-bodied and able-minded kids around me. Thank god my parents advocated for me (later teaching me to advocate for myself) and pushed to get me what I needed physically, mentally, and socially as a child. I certainly would not have the desire to succeed that I possess without these experiences, and I’m forever grateful for that. I hope that the group of teachers I spoke to enjoyed my talk, and that it helps them in their effort for acceptance in the classroom!
A few months after my talk, I turned my speech into a short YouTube video. Watch it below!