Updated: Jun 22, 2021
With the holiday season just having passed – candles visible in the windows of the houses and apartments on my street, snow popping up around the country, and everyone agreeing “we need[ed] a little Christmas” in 2020 more than ever – I’ve been forced to reckon with an old Christmas memory of my own.
In high school, one of my favorite events I participated in and helped plan every year out of the four I spent there was a big Christmas party. We would decorate the gym with an assortment of fake Christmas trees, hang lights and stockings from the bleachers, and set up games and activities throughout the room.
And then: the big moment. We would invite the students from the “special” school down the street over to our school to partake.
After being bussed over, each student from the other school would be matched with a senior from our school. Then the seniors, most of whom had probably never had a close encounter with a person with a disability before, would venture through the gym with the other student, assisting them with mobility and watching them decorate cookies or play a myriad of children’s games, most of which had been adapted to have a Christmas theme. And after a few hours of fun and games, the special education students would be brought back to their school, and our students would continue with their classes.
Through the eyes of a teenager and the eyes of many people today, this is a charming story. How could there be anything wrong with the “normal” high school students throwing a party for the students with disabilities? Isn’t it so sweet that we “allowed” them to be part of our world for just a day?
However, after working with MCIE and Think Inclusive for several months now, my once positive views of this memory have taken a more critical turn. I’ve been forced to ask difficult questions that many avoid because it makes them uncomfortable.
Why were these students at a “special” school down the street? And why could we only include them in our school for one day a year (if you can even use the word “include,” considering all we were doing was throwing a party in their honor, without the intention of actually participating in it ourselves)?
Most importantly: why weren’t we all learning together all the time?
These are the questions that have been running relentlessly through my head since joining MCIE and educating myself on disability rights. Although I’ve spent the last several years studying human rights, the world of inclusive education is still something that is brand new in my life. And entering into this world has taught me so much:
1. Inspiration porn isn’t inclusion.
I’ve learned that the story above about my high school Christmas party is typically referred to as “inspiration porn” by the disability community, meaning it exploits the lives of people with disabilities by telling a story that seems inspiring but actually belittles their humanity. When we treat the disability community as “other” from ourselves by only including them at certain moments and making it seem like we deserve a gold-star for doing so, we aren’t participating in true inclusion. Real inclusion is when we actively and intentionally include everyone all the time and don’t make a big show out of it.
2. The language we use is crucial.
Language is one of the main ways people understand and comprehend the world around them, so the words we choose to use are so important. Terms like “special needs” and “differently-abled” are well-intentioned, but what are they really saying? Most of the time, they’re extremely demeaning and continue the act of “othering.”
3. It’s okay to admit you don’t know.
When I first started at MCIE, I admitted to everyone around me that my knowledge about inclusive education and disability was slim-to-none. While it can be intimidating to admit you’ve never learned about something or are unsure how to approach a situation, it’s better to come clean than act like you have all the knowledge in the world.
4. … But then you also need to be willing to learn more.
Admitting you don’t know something is just the first step in a long process. The next step is opening your heart and mind to learn more. Be willing to ask the tough questions. Be willing to make mistakes. Be willing to educate yourself by reading books, watching videos, and actually talking to people in the community to hear the personal stories that will change your entire perspective.
5. Inclusion is not just a pipe dream; it’s happening all around the world today.
I wouldn’t say I was a skeptic when I first realized what inclusive education means. But I also wouldn’t say I was completely on board with it. It wasn’t until I started to understand the level of planning, collaboration, and support that goes into creating inclusive schools and classrooms that I knew it could work. And it does work. Inclusion is not just a pipe dream. There are plenty of studies and real-life situations that show students who are educated with their grade-level peers for the majority of their day are successful in ways they wouldn’t be otherwise. Inclusive schools truly lay the groundwork for inclusive, successful communities.
The past few months have truly been formative in the way I view the world. Knowing what I know now, if I could talk to my teenage-self, I would open her eyes earlier. I would tell her good intentions don’t always lead to inclusion, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The intent to include others can lead to real inclusion if implemented correctly. Living and learning with those who have a disability should not merely be an annual Christmas party or even just a wishful possibility. It should be an expectation that we play out by taking meaningful inclusive actions every day.
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.