The challenge of inclusion for students with disabilities has been an ongoing conversation in education. For students in my high school, inclusion has primarily meant physical inclusion only -- students with disabilities attended general education classes with typical peers. However, during lunch and after school they were usually alone and isolated from the usual social experiences that their typical peers enjoyed. My students practiced social fluency skills like eye contact and small talk in the classroom, but they never had the chance to put these skills into action by making true friendships. Participating in team sports or landing a part in the school play was only a dream. While I don't think it was ever out of malice or hatred, ignorance towards the students with intellectual disabilities ensured my students were left out of things and never integrated into the fabric of our school community -- and like any other student who feels isolated or alone, my students could feel that they were "outsiders."
Joseph entered his freshman year at Roosevelt High School in a wheelchair and was scared to death of the prospect of being in a school of seventeen hundred students. According to his mother, he was a boy who easily cried and resisted going to school because the experience offered him little reward.
Fast forward two years later and Joseph now wakes up on his own every morning, excited to go to school -- he hasn't missed a day all year. He's excited to see "the guys," as he refers to his teammates, and loves walking around the school and having the other kids say hello to him. Everyone knows Joseph's name and they show genuine interest in his life and well-being; and that means the world to Joseph. He has true friendships, and speaks before hundreds of students at school assemblies about inclusion and acceptance.
Joseph now loves coming to school.
The same can be said for many of the students -- with and without intellectual disabilities -- who participate in our school's inclusive activities. Young people who rarely spoke above a whisper in class now have the confidence to speak at school assemblies or play competitive sports. My student Sarah proudly wears her team jersey to school every sports Friday, just as the varsity teams do, and her peers can recognize and acknowledge her as an athlete. She has made close friends with general education students who are on the team, and feels a kinship to her high school family in ways that she could not otherwise have -- she belongs.
This change in attitude and shift towards inclusion for all students began with one general education student's simple goal: to meet in my classroom once a week and just hang out.
In the beginning, our meetings consisted of two special education students and three of their general education peers. At first the room was pretty quiet, but as the weeks passed, friendships began to form. They even decided to start a Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer team that spring. Parents eagerly attended every game and cheered from the stands, but the students wanted to get more people involved.
They hosted an assembly and invited students to join in our activities. That day over 50 students signed up. One year later, we now have over 100 students involved as peer academic tutors, team partners and players -- all fostering an environment that supports accepting others for their individual talents and strengths.
Even in such a short period of time, so many lives have been changed dramatically; however, it's not only the students with intellectual disabilities who have benefited from their participation in inclusionary activities, but their typical peers as well. As one general education student shares, "Playing sports together has brought me into something bigger than just myself. It changed what I believe to be one of high schools most difficult battles - exclusion. Instantly upon entering room 341, I felt included with a chorus of "hey" and "how ya doing?" There is a place for everyone in our club to be supported and find joy in simple things. It's opened me up to a world without walls or boundaries, where I can be myself and be part of a community of friends."
Social inclusion is the next major step in realizing an education dream that promises to serve every child equally. Our activities started out as a club for students with disabilities and their typical peers to come together. It became an opportunity for true inclusion to begin in my school, and it continues to grow and affect change. Inclusive friendships bring out the best in our school. I have seen amazing changes, resulting in increased staff awareness as well as closer ties with families. I encourage every teacher and every school across the country to provide opportunities for students of all abilities to form genuine connections and friendship with one another. It brings hope, creates a strong future and builds communities for all students. Through friendship, it allows every student to find a place where they belong.
Joseph says it best, "It is a place where everybody can come together, and where new people can find friends."
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Special Olympics in conjunction with National Bullying Prevention Month this October. To find out more about how Special Olympics is urging the world to #PlayUnified to stop bullying and support inclusion for all, please visit here. Read all posts in the series here.