What does inclusion really look like?
It’s a question I let percolate possibly as much as a professional educator. Sure, it’s a lovely idea, but how does it actually work? Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference in beautiful Banff, Alberta. The whole family came with, including my mom, Ella’s grandma. As we entered the main hall at the Banff Centre for the Arts on Friday night, there was a flurry of activity – something for everyone. The theme was camping, so there were s’mores on a stick, a tent filled with teddy bears that the kids could take home, a dance tent, Joey Moss was there signing autographs and having his picture taken and there was an art display by an artist who just happens to have Down Syndrome.
The following morning was when the formal programing started. The keynote speakers were Elena and Sean from the Emmy award winning A & E show, Born This Way. Both Sean and Elena’s messages were simple and something everyone needs to hear: believe in your dreams – it could happen! They told their stories of how many people did not believe in them or their abilities. Sean recalled how his drama teacher in high school told him that he would never be on TV. Sean’s response? “Drama teacher, kiss my bass,” as a slide came up of a large googily-eyed fish. We all face discouragement in our lives and haters who refuse to imagine a different world, but I would argue, none more so than those with a visible disability and not just any disability: Down syndrome. You can see someone in a wheelchair and a reasonable person might not immediately assume they have a cognitive delay but with Down syndrome, one of the fairly consistent attributes is just that. People with Down syndrome are doubted on a daily basis, they are told they can’t, or they won’t or they’ll NEVER but Elena and Sean are a living a different story.
“Drama teacher, kiss my bass,”
The interesting this about that session however, is that while I was at the conference to be inspired, learn and fellowship, Elena and Sean, weren’t necessarily talking just to me. Their message wasn’t only for the neuro-typical parents, practitioners and professionals in the room. Their message was for their peers, for other people with Down syndrome. It was inclusion in action. The people with Down syndrome were not segregated to a separate room or their own sessions. Sure, there were breakout sessions specifically for self-advocates but it didn’t mean they had to go to them and couldn’t attend the session on, say, inclusive education or teaching numeracy. It just provided options. Sessions are designed to be just that: based on interest not ability.
Shelley Moore, in her session on teaching to strength talked about specifically that. She recalled how in Tofino, they have passion Fridays, where each Friday the kids would get to choose their group and teacher based on a passion such as surfing, or science or painting. It had nothing to do with ability, which is how we tend to categorize children currently. We teach to weakness. The kids that are bad in math, go to this room, or the kids who need help with reading, go with this teacher.
The beautiful thing about the weekend, was that it was a coming together around the common passion of #Seeingtheability. I saw speakers who spoke to all abilities, I celebrated diversity and I communed on a level playing field. Yes, there is something special about the CDSS – a rarity in a world full of stereotypes, judgments and assumptions. The weekend ended with the annual banquet but this year, we celebrated the CDSS’s 30th anniversary and it was indeed, a celebration. We celebrated the vision of parents, who, 30 years ago, wanted only the best for their children and paved the way for parents like me. We celebrated 30 years of building awareness and providing support and we celebrated the beauty in diversity and we celebrated the inspiration that people with Down syndrome bring to our lives every single day.