By Emma Van der Klift & Norman Kunc

A full version of this article can be found at the Broadreach Training website. This article was published with permission from the authors.

Editor’s Note: It was my pleasure to speak with Emma and Norman recently about our vision for inclusion and inclusive education. They have a wonderful resource website (Broadreach Training) as well as a subscription site where you can learn from the very best in the field of inclusive communities via video interviews. After you read this excerpt I highly recommend that you check it out! Visit Conversations That Matter for more information. 

The move toward cooperative and inclusive education is part of a larger move out of social oppression for individuals with disabilities. It is part of a groundswell movement of social reform that holds as a central tenet the belief that all children, including those with disabilities, are capable of learning and contributing to their classrooms and communities.

Students formerly educated in separate schools or segregated classrooms are appearing in increasing numbers in neighbourhood schools and regular classrooms. Across North America, we are coming to recognize that full participation in communities and schools should be the right of all individuals and that segregation on the basis of physical, mental, or cultural differences is fundamentally wrong.

This is the first generation of children with and without disabilities to grow up and be educated together. Consequently, within inclusive education we have come to entertain a cheerful optimism that the generation growing up now will be different than those of the past. We are hopeful that greater contact between children will begin to break down the barriers of misunderstanding and dispel the myths that have created society’s response to disability.

At first glance, this change might seem to be taking place. Individuals with disabilities are more visible and increasingly involved in community life. If we believed that greater proximity led to greater acceptance, it could be argued that we are successfully participating in the creation of a new social order. Unfortunately, this is only partly true. Instead, we are finding that increased visibility and “presence” alone do not necessarily ensure that those with disabilities are fully included.

True inclusion is dependent on the development of meaningful and reciprocal relationships between children. As classrooms become increasingly diverse, new strategies are being developed to ensure that the new students are more than simply present. Friendship circles, school clubs and special buddy systems have been implemented as formalized attempts to foster interaction and develop relationships.

While increased interaction may result from such efforts, friendship often remains elusive. Children may have successful buddy systems during school hours and still be isolated and friendless after three o’clock. Children without disabilities may be helpful and involved, but a reciprocal relationship upon which genuine friendship is based does not always develop. The difficult and often frustrating question is then, “What are the barriers impeding the development of friendship, and how can we move past them?”


At the end of the twentieth century, the most significant barriers preventing individuals with labels of disability from fully participating in schools and communities are still attitudinal. Specifically, our society still perceives those with disabilities as perpetual receivers of help. Descriptors like “less fortunate” and “needy,” telethons, and tear-jerker journalism all continue to perpetuate this view.

Unfortunately, there is still a distressing tendency in some schools to base interactions with students on these broader societal misperceptions, despite a sincere desire to end the isolation experienced by so many children with disabilities. Friendship clubs and buddy systems based on stereotypical beliefs risk perpetuating prejudices and myths and even exacerbating the problem.

Obviously, it is essential that students be provided with opportunities to interact. Formalized friendship and support circles may be effective ways to building relationships. However, an over-emphasis on the “helper/helpee” relationship can easily skew the delicate balance of giving and receiving that is the precursor of true friendship. It is critical, then, to regularly and carefully examine the nature of the interaction we facilitate and the attitudes that inform it.

Consider the following scenario:

Four third grade children from a local elementary school have come to speak to a room full of adults. They’ve been invited, with their teacher, to talk about friendship. Actually, three of them are there to talk about their friendship with the fourth child. Children in third grade make friends all the time. We ask ourselves, “What could possibly be unusual enough about this situation to bring these children here today?”

What’s unusual is soon apparent. Three of the four children in the room can speak, one of them can’t. Three of the four children in the room can walk, one of them can’t. The three walking, talking children are here to tell us about their relationship with the young man in the wheelchair.

Adults in the room begin to smile as the first classmate talks. Approving nods accompany the child’s words, “He’s different on the outside, but inside he’s just like me.”

The conversation whirls around the boy in the wheelchair as he scans the room, looks at his communication board and sometimes watches his classmates.

“We take turns being his buddy,” offers one young girl. “Everyone has a turn.”

As the children talk and answer questions, it is interesting to watch the interplay between the subject of the discussion and the girl to his left. She has one arm around his shoulders, and in the other hand holds a washcloth. She wipes his mouth repeatedly. At one point, he appears to lose patience and struggles a bit. One hand jerks forward. His friend seizes his and holds it still. He makes a noise of clear irritation, and attempts to pull his hand free.

His classmate smiles fondly at him, continuing to restrain his hand, and wipes his mouth again.”

Is there anything wrong here? Not much, we might say. A nine-year old who in other times or other places might have been attending segregated classes and a group of nice third-graders together are learning a few lessons about difference and similarity.

We might even agree with comments made by audience members. We heard the boy’s three classmates being called “the hope for tomorrow” and “exceptional kids”. All over the room, adults were beaming. After all, this relatively new phenomenon seems to hold out some hope for an end to discrimination and distance between those who have disabilities and those who do not.

However, as the presentation continued, it became increasingly apparent that while both adults and children thought they were talking about friendship, much of the discussion taking place was really about help. While there was undeniable warmth between the children, most of the comments and non-verbal interactions reflected a “helper/helpee” relationship, not a reciprocal friendship.

When initially attempting to foster relationships between children with disabilities and their non-disabled classmates, it is common practice to have children “help” the new student. Such help may take the form of physical care, “keeping company” during breaks, or schoolwork assistance. Help giving contact can reduce an initial sense of strangeness or fear, and can, if carefully done, lay the groundwork for friendship.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with help; friends often help each other. However, it is essential to acknowledge that help is not and can never be the basis of friendship. We must be careful not to over-emphasize the “helper/helpee” aspect of a relationship. Unless help is reciprocal, the inherent inequity between ‘helper’ and ‘helpee’ will contaminate the authenticity of a relationship.

Friendship is not the same as help. Attempts to include children with disabilities have sometimes blurred this distinction. Friendship clubs are often really assistance clubs. For example, how much time is spent on the logistics of help? “Who can take Jane to the library on Monday?” “Who can help George eat lunch on Friday?” Still more insidious, how much time is spent bringing George’s classmates into a “mufti-disciplinary team system” to analyze the effectiveness of his current behaviour management plan?

Professional caretakers are made, not born. How does it happen? Put a third-grade “helper” next to a third grade “helpee”. Add a sizable amount of adult approval, and there you have it.

It is not entirely thrilling that kids who take part in friendship circles during school go on to careers in human service. Don’t misunderstand. Lots of wonderful people choose this profession. However, an unfortunate result is that lots of children and adults with mental and physical handicaps have legions of professional caregivers, but no friends in their lives. We must guard against merely creating another generation of “professionals” and “clients”, with the former group seen as perpetually competent, and the latter, perpetually needy.

But what’s a teacher to do? To create a helper is relatively easy; to facilitate a friendship is tough. After all, friendship cannot simply be mandated. At best, it seems to be made up of one third proximity and two thirds alchemy!

Perhaps we must begin by acknowledging what should be, but is not always obvious. That is, no one has the power to conjur up friendship at will. Maybe that’s just as well. Friendship is about choice and chemistry, and cannot even be readily defined, much less forced. This is precisely its magic. Realizing this, we can acknowledge without any sense of inadequacy that we are not, nor need to be, friendship sorcerers.

However, teachers and others do have some influence over the nature of proximity. Thus, to create and foster an environment in which it is possible for friendship to emerge might be a more reasonable goal. In order to achieve this goal, it is essential that we examine the nature of the interactions we facilitate. In particular, we must look closely at the role of help in our classrooms, and look not so much at whether children should help each other, but how that help takes place.


Let’s “begin at the beginning”, and examine what help means to all of us. In most societies today, helping others is viewed as a socially admirable course of action. Those of us who are in a so-called “privileged position” are asked to give to others. We know we should give to our families, our communities, and most of all, to those “less fortunate” than ourselves. Yet, why is it that most of us, while perfectly comfortable offering help, are decidedly uncomfortable receiving it?

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Photo Credit: fingle

Originally published in: Thousand, J., Villa, R., Nevin, A. Creativity and Collaborative Learning: A Practical Guide to Empowering Students and Teachers. Baltimore: Paul Brookes, 1994.
© Copyright 1994 Paul H. Brookes Publishers.