Last year I had the good fortune to participate in a play called The Book of Judith. My role was tiny – I was part of the back-up choir – but the experience was eye-opening. The play is about one man’s encounter with Judith Snow, an accomplished writer, artist and advocate who has quadriplegia. It’s a powerful piece of theatre that challenges our assumptions of what it means to be disabled, and how we see and relate to disability. But for me, the most meaningful part was simply being in the “mixed ability choir,” learning, rehearsing and performing with singers who had a variety of disabilities. This small inclusive experience – or rather the fact of its rarity – made me realize how segregated our society still is, and how far we have to go in building a truly inclusive country.
The tide is turning, at least when it comes to schooling. From ministries of education to individual teachers and parents, we are realizing that it’s not only unnecessary to sequester students with disabilities in special education classrooms, it’s not best for them or anyone else. As Jacqueline Specht points out in “School Inclusion: Are we getting it right?” (p. 16), “people with disabilities want a life, just like people without disabilities.” Being a full participant in society starts with being a full participant in school.
But achieving a truly effective inclusive classroom requires new ways of teaching, new kinds of teamwork and significant support. In too many schools across the country, we are not yet there. One teacher I know told me, “I have 29 kids, and eight of them have Individual Education Plans, which I know are basically a lie. I feel terrible about it and I do try to follow them, but there is only me and I can’t implement the IEPs and teach all the other kids.” Another talked about a student with ASD who cries through most of every school day; there is no additional staff person to support this child. “How is that good for anybody?” she worries.
It’s little wonder we had more strong submissions for this theme issue than we could use: the mandate to provide effective and inclusive education to students with exceptional learning needs challenges every teacher, every school, and every level of administration. But it’s the best kind of challenge – a challenge to create a richer, more equitable educational experience for all students.
We can all be in the choir. In this issue, we explore how – in a school setting – it can be accomplished.
First published in Education Canada, March 2013
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