I met a person the other day who was absolutely certain that Inclusion of people with significant intellectual disabilities in typical college classrooms was the best way to go. “No one should be ‘special,’” he said. “Separate is never equal.”
“Inclusion” is one of those words that you just can’t argue with. Except that in some instances, I can. The very fact that you are not allowed to doubt its universal benefit is what makes me squeamish. Sometimes it even feels to me like inclusion is kind of lordly, where the Includer can feel magnanimous because they have invited others in.
Inclusion, however, has been the watchword of the faith of the disability movement, and rightfully so. Because of inclusion, we have helpful laws, accommodations, and understanding. We have bridged certain chasms and brought whole groups of the population out from hiding. Inclusion has brought difference into the pack and made it less so.
But no, that last thing is not quite true. First of all, we do have differences from one another. People with disabilities have disabilities, and nothing but cures take them away. Some disabilities you don’t see; others you do. Why should the goal be not to see disability? Only when seeing it is getting in the way of fair treatment and respect.
I think inclusion can only go so far. Inclusion is part of the solution, but not all of it. Inclusion is the first step, to right a wrong (exclusion). Inclusion should go without saying; institutions should never be able to turn people away based on color, race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation…
But when inclusion is the end goal, I think it may be a weak gesture, especially when it comes to including people with deep autism and intellectual disabilities (ID). For me, the clearest example of this is in education. And here is where many disability activists will disagree with me. But I think that it is not enough to have people with significant disabilities in typical school classrooms, if the classroom is not set up for them to learn, or if the teacher is not trained in autism or ID approaches and strategies.
Disability activists will argue that there must be only one standard, that the same expectations should apply to all. That if we have separate offerings, targeted programs, certain requirements removed, we may be guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I understand where they are coming from: that long era in history where people with disabilities were relegated to attics, basement classrooms, institutions. Where society started every sentence about the disabled with “They can’t” and everyone stared and felt sorry for them. We never ever want to return to those days. We need our laws, our ADA, our IDEA, our inclusive standard.
But we have to move to the next step and consider the individual. Each person has his own particular needs and challenges, and it should be okay that some don’t follow the inclusive track. Nat did not. Nat went to a private autism school, with very small classes and staff ratio of 1:2, something like that. In a regular classroom in the public school, Nat did not learn because there was not enough focus on him. He needed his lessons and tasks presented in a very systematic, routine way without a lot of distraction and changes. The inclusive classroom could not provide him with that, nor did the teachers have the training in the techniques that worked best with Nat. I am thankful that my town sent Nat to the May Center for most of his school years, because of the tiny classes and the emphasis on direct teaching, repetition, structure. And by the way, no energy or resources needed to be devoted to anti-bullying.
Nat’s typical peers missed out on him, and he, them. Nat was sheltered, not exposed to so many “normal” things. Even his sports were Special. He did have a prom, though. Anyway, we could not sacrifice the curriculum and techniques Nat needed to learn, just so that he could sit with typically developing peers. Sure, they would have gotten a lot out of him. He is very good at inspiring people and teaching us about a whole other way of living. And I also think he may have enjoyed hanging around on the edges of boisterous groups of teenagers. That’s why we found him his social groups. They are a noisy happy group of young adults who also have disabilities.
I fear the soft bigotry of uniform expectations. I think it is counter-productive to ask a guy who functions like Nat to learn in a regular college classroom. On the other hand, programs in the Community College Consortium for Autism and Intellectual Disabilities (where I work as Director of Autism Adult Services and Outreach) begin with inclusion, by building programs aimed at men and women with significant disabilities. There the goal is more pragmatic, effective learning, on-the-job training as well as soft skill-building. Nat, for example, needs different processing time, he needs a certain level of instruction: simple, straightforward, and relevant to his life because he has difficulty generalizing.
Sure, I sometimes feel sad that he is not on that college-career track because I wanted that life for him. But he and I had to accept certain limitations. We had to make certain choices to ensure his success. We chose a path where Nat could be trained to work and to live as independently as possible, because we thought that would benefit him the most. More than sitting next to but never going out with typical teenagers in high school, and more than taking a drawing or photography class at a local college. We did our best for him. Others may choose inclusion, and they have the right to do so, but they must be aware of the possible pitfalls.
For me, I would rather see people get what they need and have that be respected, even if it is separate or Special. I would rather that people’s differences could remain as different as they are, as different as they need to be, and have that be just fine, just the way it is. Inclusion makes a fine beginning, but it is not the end.