Recently, I had the privilege of attending two events that focused on inclusion for individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (ID). The events spanned only three days, but they had a profound effect on me. During that time, my perspective shifted, and I was left with the difficult realization that I have not had an inclusive mindset.
In general, society tends to be uncomfortable around individuals with ID, or any kind of disability. Because many have difficulty verbally communicating, gestures and behaviors are used to display what cannot be said, which leads to individuals begin labeled as challenging or troubled. When society sees behaviors they think are inappropriate, individuals get segregated into special classes or programs leaving interactions with the community and friends very limited, while most time is spent with professionals.
However, what I learned at the conference is that I, a layperson with no professional experience, can be part of actively engaging and helping those with disabilities. A simple act of friendship can go a long way if we’re willing to extend ourselves.
One quote in particular from one of the speakers really struck a chord with me: “If we don’t make efforts towards inclusion, we are saying ‘You don’t matter’”.
Once I was confronted with this perspective, I knew that something in my behavior had to change. But what? And how?
What does ‘inclusive’ mean?
Let’s first discuss what inclusive means. When I speak of inclusivity in this context, it’s the concept of embracing ALL individuals, including those with disabilities, as fully part of our community. It recognizes that individuals with disabilities aspire to the same dimensions of a meaningful life as those without disabilities, such as fulfilling work, relationships, and social interaction.
Think about the life of a ‘typical’ child. He/she attends school, has friends, plays sports, and participates in clubs. Teachers, coaches, and spiritual leaders mentor and guide them along in life. They have hobbies, interests, strengths and weaknesses. They will attend college and/or pursue their careers. Why should we have different expectations for individuals with disabilities? Yet, oftentimes we do.
Inclusivity is a mindset that believes that individuals with disabilities do not have special needs; they have the human needs just like everyone else. I love how the organization Not Special Needs hilariously articulates this point so well!
Why is inclusion Important?
Many individuals with disabilities typically live in isolation because of challenges stemming from their disability. These individuals suffer not from their disability, but from loneliness. Did you know that 80% of brain activity is spent processing and analyzing social behavior? Humans are hardwired for social connection.
Many times, people and places are not prepared or equipped to assist families that require different needs. Thus, many find themselves staying home rather than attending community events and activities. Children learn by playing and observing. If they are not exposed to social situations, how then can they effectively learn? This only leads to further isolation. Inclusion is important to avoid isolation.
So how do we become inclusive?
I’m sure you’re asking now, “Okay, so where do we start?” I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ideas.
- Think about how you think. Take some time to evaluate how you perceive individuals with disabilities. Do you not think much about it because you are not directly impacted? (Me!) Do you avoid interaction because you a) are afraid of offending or b) are simply uncertain how to? (Me!) What reasons do you have for the particular mindset?
- Be kind. If you have some uncertainty about interacting with individuals with disabilities, this can be a good way to overcome it. Start by smiling and saying hello. Maybe start some small talk, i.e. What do you like to do? At the conference, I had the privilege of speaking one-on-one with a young man with Down Syndrome and another with Autism. I listened, learned and responded,and I walked away feeling much more comfortable with reaching out to others.
- Reach out. Do you know someone or a family of someone with disabilities? Reach out and see how you can help in practical ways. Each family and individual will have different needs so this can vary. For me, a family at my church has a child with Down Syndrome. I’m reaching out to see how I can support them at church or otherwise.
- Be a gatekeeper. If you are a part of a club or group, you can be a gatekeeper for individuals with disabilities. Lead by example for others by welcoming the person into the group & supporting them with an opportunity to pursue something they’re passionate about.
What I learned at the conference is that becoming inclusive in the long term requires a change at the macro level within our communities. It starts with individuals, like you and me. It’s a shift in perspective to see each individual, regardless of disability, as just that – an individual person – with needs, wants, desires, gifts, and talents. Sure, they have some limitations. But don’t we all? It’s a long road to inclusion and there is much to learn along the way. However, I believe it’s worth it if it gives individuals with disabilities the sense that they are valued and they have purpose.