One day after moving into our new home, the neighbor boy and his brother knocked on the door. They came to invite my daughter to join them in visiting the chickens in the nearby chicken coop. “Hurry! Hurry!” my daughter shouted, as we all jumped to get her ready to go. She was thrilled to join them and my eyes welled with tears.
Being asked to play seems like one of the most ordinary events in a child’s life. Yet, every time my daughter is invited to play or join someone else, my heart leaps with gratitude. You see, my daughter has Down Syndrome and being included is not something I take for granted. It feels like a blessing each and every time it happens.
I have come to believe, while some people particularly the very young, may be naturally inclined to include those with differences, for most of us, inclusion is a learned skill and expectation. It takes effort and awareness. In fact, learning the skills of inclusion can sometimes feel down right uncomfortable and contrived. Many of us initially experience discomfort in being with someone unlike ourselves, but in doing so we also learn to make connections. We learn sensitivity, empathy, confidence and courage.
My daughter is someone who has noticeable differences, yet, when you get to know her, you realize there are many potential common bonds. She loves to dance and ski, swim and sing, eat pizza and watch movies. She is enthusiastic and kind-hearted. And, yes, she does have friends at school, but infrequently do those friendships extend beyond school hours. Her dad and I have thought about setting up a “circle of friends” group. Essentially, this is a contrived support group. It feels awkward to set up this kind of support, but maybe this is what we need to open doors. I believe it might open doors not just for our daughter, but for all involved.
In our schools, we have mandated inclusion and about 50% of children with special needs are included in the regular classrooms. Providing the opportunity to be included is great progress, but just allowing inclusion does not mean inclusion happens. I know of one very capable girl with Down Syndrome who was included in a regular classroom, but ended up hiding under her desk, fearful of her class. It is one thing to allow and tolerate inclusion and quite another thing to make inclusion work. Allowing someone to share space with you, I call that tolerance, but actually including someone takes a whole different set of skills.
Imagine if our young people grew up with these skills. Imagine if along with reading and writing, children not only learned the concept of inclusion but experienced and practiced inclusion skills. Imagine if our children expected over and over again to invite others into their circle. Imagine the grace and courtesy learned in the practice of reaching out. Imagine the acceptance of others.
Clearly, we need not be talking only of people like my daughter who has a disability; we could easily be referring to those with different religious, racial or cultural backgrounds. Surely our most revered leaders throughout the world have mastered these skills of including others. I believe those who are skilled in including others are the true leaders in our world. These are the people who know how to promote peace and understanding in the world, the people who have learned the grace and courtesy of reaching out to others, the people capable of inclusion.
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