By Sandra Woffington
From an early age, children learn to include or exclude peers. Secret signals seem to pass between them as to who is "in" and who is "out" of their social group. Those in fear of falling out of favor follow along in silent compliance with the in-crowd. Sadly, that ability to include or exclude reaches into adulthood.
The excuse, "It's always been this way," simply means the problem has not been adequately addressed. Twenty percent of children face bulling and exclusion (considered social bullying), but for special needs children that number rises to 50%. To make matters worse, working-age special needs adults face an unemployment rate of 80%.
Inclusion takes place when every person -- child and adult -- is accepted and valued in a community. Statistics show that when children feel accepted and valued at school, they prosper well when they leave school. So how do we teach children to include the different among us?
Inclusion means showing respect for each and every child: those strong or weak academically, socially, athletically, musically, and theatrically, to name a few. Each child needs to feel he or she has a special talent. My eldest daughter struggled in school, where it all came easy to her sister. When stressed, Tara drew or cooked, her two amazing talents. Ironically, because she always had to work so hard to do well in school, she also gleaned amazing fortitude. No one is good at everything. Point out the special talents of each child to let them feel special.
Inclusion means viewing others -- children with special needs, too -- as equally able and equally valuable. A high-functioning autistic boy in my classroom had nearly perfect math scores; he was especially abled in math, well beyond his peers. Once the children learned how they could coach him socially and in English (his weak areas), the students took him under their wing and even attended his first-ever birthday party with classmates. Everyone benefited by inclusion.
Children have an enormous capacity for inclusion. A group of students at Boca Raton (Fla.) Community High School formed a "We Dine Together" club, in which members walk the school grounds at lunchtime and sit with isolated students, getting to know them and inviting them into the community. That's the spirit of inclusion, and it just takes reaching out to others. It takes a child asking, "Would you like to get together after school?" or a person asking a co-worker, "Would you like to go for a cup of coffee?"
To set the stage at home, parents should speak in positive terms about others, especially those culturally, intellectually, or physically different. In regards to individuals with special needs, avoid negative words such as "disabled," "handicapped," and "impaired," and simply use the term "special needs." It's simple, and the word "special" is positive.
Invite diverse friends over and attend community cultural events other than your own. Volunteer at sporting events for those with special needs and cheer on the athletes, or watch the U.S. Paralympic events as a family, so children will see people with special needs as abled, determined, and talented. The more children meet and include others with diverse backgrounds and needs, the more the differences that divide us fade away.
In addition, literature presented to children should have characters diverse in ethnicities, cultures, and abilities. For example, the book Rules allows children to experience what it is like to have a sibling with autism, and the main character, Catherine, learns to accept a new friend, Jason, who communicates using pictures. Freak the Mighty pairs a physically challenged boy and a mentally challenged boy as best friends -- each values the strengths of the other. When writing Evil Speaks, the first book in my new Warriors and Watchers Saga series, it seemed perfectly normal to include quirky teens and those with special needs in a quest in which they must become warriors to save the world, because special needs children have long been a part of my world.
Progress is being made. Sesame Street recently introduced Julia, a Muppet with autism, to help children understand friends with autism. The newest Power Rangers movie has an autistic superhero. And in the real world, the Courtyard Muncie at Horizon Convention Center in Indiana houses the Erskine Green Training Institute, which provides training for individuals with disabilities in a variety of jobs in the hospitality and healthcare fields, helping them find employment. Lastly, Aaron Muderick, inventor of Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty, hired 800 people with physical and intellectual special needs to work in his factory.
Inclusion can happen, one home, one classroom, and one business at a time.
Sandra Woffington is a middle school teacher and the author of the Warriors and Watchers Saga series, an epic mythological fantasy. Book 1, Evil Speaks, was released in February. For more, visit warriorsandwatcherssaga.com