Inclusion vs. Seclusion

The other day, I had the wonderful opportunity to tour one of our community’s sometimes hidden gems.  But what I left with were more questions in my own mind than answers.  The local county public school system has a wonderful school devoted solely to those with developmental disabilities.  Students range in age from the sixth grade level to 18-22 years of age.  They are taught life skills, job skills, have various therapies including therapeutic horseback riding and swimming, and those who attend the school love it!  I even passed a parent in the hallway whom I know who said the school was great and was a special place.  Special indeed.

It took me back to my own sister’s education in Tennessee where she began attending a local elementary school when she was five years old and eventually, as many individuals with special needs do, she had the principal and many other staff members there wrapped around her little finger.  There’s just something about these special folks diagnosed with developmental disabilities that you can’t explain.  Something that draws you to them with love, care and concern that is unmatched.  Nevertheless, my sister eventually got older and wound up attending high school with me.  She had her own classroom with others like her and her own schedule, but many students in the school served as “peer tutors” in her classes.  She ate lunch in the cafeteria, attended pep rallies for our football games, and walked the halls like any other student. 

So what is different about these two education pathways?  While I understand that many of the schools in our local community at the elementary, middle and high school levels have classrooms for varying special education needs, this one special school is devoted to those who require the most care and assistance.  If my family had lived here, my sister would have attended that school and not been in high school with me, where she saw me cheer and heard me sing the alma mater at pep rallies.  My high school friends would not have been special education peer tutors to her as an elective in their high school curriculum.  I would not have had the opportunity to pass and greet her in the hallway, where she was always donned in her pink helmet as to prevent injury to herself during any type of behavioral outburst.  Knowing all of this has simply left me asking questions in my own mind.

At ARC Marion, people with developmental disabilities receive job skills training in the hopes that one day, at least some of them will be able to go on enclaves and work in businesses around our community.  Our goal is one of inclusion.  During our recent fundraiser, An Elegant Evening of Thanks, 15 ARC clients attended the event.  They weren’t all together but sat at tables spread throughout the room.  Every “normal” person who sat with one of our clients has told us how wonderful it was to meet and interact with those special individuals.  Why? Because they were included. 

I suppose my concern doesn’t lie with the people with special needs.  They are receiving wonderful care, training and life skills coaching at their specialized public school.  But it’s the folks like me, classified as “normal” about which I worry.  I only hope that we aren’t raising a generation of adults who don’t know how to include those with developmental disabilities into their everyday lives.  In turn, I do hope that in the wonderful educationally enriching environment being provided for special needs students that we aren’t keeping them from knowing how to be included. 

I am grateful for the education I received and the opportunities given to me that allowed my sister and me to attend the same public high school for a few years.  And after seeing that the inclusion we had there isn’t present everywhere, I won’t ever take it for granted.

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