My school hosted a “Diversity Day” a few weeks ago — with the intent of giving our students some workshop-like experiences that would allow them to explore more deeply our school’s motto: SAILL. SAILL stands for support, affirm, include, listen to, and learn from others as you would have them do with you. Each teacher was assigned one of the SAILL terms, and we were instructed to develop a lesson or workshop that would address our assigned part of the acronym. I was assigned “include,” and I decided to find a short story about the exclusion that occurs in middle school, an easy enough task. I thought I would have students read and react to the story. My students are highly verbal and they are used to this kind of reader response.
The day before diversity day, I was conflicted about my decision to read a short story on Diversity Day — it didn’t feel right, and it felt too much like what I do everyday in class. Diversity Day’s goal is to do something out of the ordinary, to think about issues of diversity in new ways. My story and discussion didn’t fit the bill. A colleague suggested that I come at the issue of inclusion with my groups from a “meta” perspective. Her suggestion got me thinking about my initial reaction to my assigned topic. When I googled “inclusion” I found many hits dedicated to education programs and philosophies that include children with physical, emotional, behavioral, or intellectual differences in “regular” classrooms.
My search reminded me of the barriers and obstacles that Monkey Man has faced, overcome, and will continue to face as the only student in our school with a physical disability that requires him to wear leg braces. When Monkey Man was just two, his admission to my school was questionable since our school does not have an inclusion program — and because it is private school, does not actively seek children with differences. However, because Monkey Man is bright, social, and charming, he was allowed to give our school a try.
Monkey Man’s story inspired me to talk with my workshop attendees about what we actually mean by “include” in our school motto. I asked them what they thought it meant, and the answers varied, but most of the students speculated that inclusion seemed to mean being nice to other kids, allowing them to be part of the cliques, and not excluding them from conversations or lunch tables. This is a narrow way to read the word, to be sure, but given what they experience every day in school, not surprising.
I explained to my workshop attendees very briefly about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and asked whether they thought simple things like stairways with railings, doors with automatic openers, and ramps allowed accessibility to our school by people who might be in wheelchairs, on crutches, or who have a physical disability. Several students responded with their own experiences of frustrations when they have had sprained or broken ankles; two students talked about the fear and anxiety they experienced when only temporarily struggling to move around the school on crutches or even in a walking boot. These middle school students were able to express their empathy for Monkey Man, a small five-year old, who faces obstacles of navigating the school on a daily basis. The day before Diversity Day, we had just had a fire drill, and I explained that for Monkey Man, exiting the school during a drill is particularly tricky, so much so that his teacher carries him down the front steps. Monkey Man is able to walk, but in crowded emergency situations, his teacher worries that he might fall or be knocked down. Because the stairway he uses as an exit had no handrails, he would probably not be able to navigate the steps without his teacher’s help.
My students know Monkey Man because of his charismatic personality, and we talked about how he has been able to have the help he needs to this point in school in part due to his charming personality. However, the students realized that Americans with Disabilities should not have to rely upon personality or charm to have access to what Americans without disabilities take for granted.
In order to find out whether our school actually was in compliance, we walked the grounds, taking photographs and collecting data about the number of stairways without handrails or ramp options. We also noted doors with automatic openers (and those without). To be fair, our school is well over 100 years old, so notions of accessibility were not part of the original architectural planning when the school was built. However, the school has undergone some additions and changes over the years, and we found 12 entrances with concrete stairways, and only two of them with ramp options, and several of those stairways had no handrails.
The students were alarmed that our school does not provide accessibility options, and they realized that the notion of inclusion is far beyond letting someone sit with you at lunch, or whether you exclude someone from your group of friends. We didn’t know what to do with the data we collected, but they brainstormed ideas ranging from presenting the findings to the principal, building manager, and even the board of directors. They wondered why our school will not spend the money necessary to put up ramps, handrails on stairways, and automatic opening doors.
The lesson was a good one, and made many of them think about how we define diversity at our school. We learned that able-bodiedness is something that we all take for granted, and that when it comes to diversity, some of the ways in which we are diverse are not always immediately definable or recognizable.