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Creating Supportive Environments for Students with Disabilities

As long as we continue to see people with disabilities as separate in any way, they will never be included
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Often when “to do” lists are presented, people think that they are doing what they should to create supportive environments for students with disabilities. I have seen far too many examples of what very well intentioned people think is participation and inclusion, but could not be farther from the truth. As long as we continue to see people with disabilities as separate in any way, they will never be included. We need to fundamentally change our mindsets in schools in order to truly welcome all students and create environments that are safe and inclusive. I use just a few examples of events that I have witnessed over my years of involvement in the inclusion movement and ask why?

Why do we create “best buddies” programs that involve the “kind” students coming to a room with students with disabilities to play games or going to the movie with them one Friday afternoon a month? There are many clubs and activities that already exist in schools. Why not find the student’s passion and interest and include him/her in activities that already exist? That is how we create opportunities for real friendships. When we do include students with disabilities in their school activities, why do we feel the need for them to travel together as a pack with the EAs attached? The number one barrier to successful inclusion is that an adult is hanging out with a kid. Think back to when you were younger. Would you want to hang out with a kid who was always with an adult? What about high school graduations? Why do we have separate ceremonies or worse yet, parade a couple of students from a segregated class across the stage at the beginning of the ceremony to receive an award and then dismiss those students and their families that are sitting in the auditorium to head back to the segregated class to continue the ceremony. We allowed special access to the “real graduation” for few minutes and then dismissed them like we have their whole school career. Think of the messages given to these families, their children, and all of the student body about the place of students with disabilities in that school. 

Carol Tashie, author and public speaker, talks of creating friendships in school. Friendship is not just about people with disabilities, but often this is the group that we overlook as needing genuine friendships. We think that if we create places for kids with disabilities to have a few people without disabilities drop in, we are creating friendships. What we are doing is more like peer support. Tashie very eloquently indicates the difference between peer support and friendship. Friendship occurs when two or more people discover common interests and develop a mutually satisfying relationship. Peer support is the kind of help one student may give to another student, sometimes via an adult’s request. She also indicates that it is true that friends often provide support, and peer support can sometimes develop into friendship. However, they remain very different kinds of relationships.

There are so many opportunities that exist in our schools. We do not need to create separate or special events for people with disabilities. We need to stop the charitable notion that we are doing something “nice” for students with disabilities because we include them. Students with disabilities need to have the same experiences for growth as all students. They need to be with their same age peers learning the curriculum that is provided by the school systems. Literacy and numeracy are life skills. Friendship is a life need.

I met a boy once who changed my whole philosophy for inclusion. I used to think “how can you include kids who are nonverbal with mobility needs?” Then I looked in to his eyes and thought “how can you not include him?”. Value the dignity of the human person. Support genuine opportunities. That is how we create supportive and inclusive school communities for ALL.


This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on The New School Community, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s The New School Community theme issue and a Facts on Education fact sheet How does parent involvement in education affect children’s learning?  Please contact info@cea-ace.ca if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.