Nowadays in the disability community, the word "inclusion" pops up in a lot of conversations. It is a mantra for parents, professionals and self advocates alike. As someone with a disability that was fully integrated with nondisabled and neurotypical people, I believe in the importance of inclusion and how it is beneficial for both disabled and nondisabled persons alike. Recently I read an article that was shared on facebook that changed my perspective on inclusion. This article, made me take a hard look at my views and examine some of my life experiences in which the positions posed by pro-inclusion activists conflict with some of my own as an autistic self advocate. It is with this post, I will share why I take a more moderate stance in the inclusion debate.
There are some scenarios in which inclusion simply does not work or falls short in serving those with special needs. Sometimes inclusion is a "false reality" and that it paints a picture that everyone with a disability will be welcomed and fully embraced in the community. The reality is that not all communities are created equal in which some are more embracing of "differences" than others. One such example is in the school system. Advocates who support full integration of those with disabilities into regular education classes miss the fact that not all school districts are created equal in provisioning of special education services. This is true especially in big areas such as Los Angeles which is comprised of multiple school districts all varying in quality. I was lucky that the school district was able to provide support services (such as a 1:1 aide, counseling etc.) that made inclusion possible. However for some of my friends, being pulled out of public school and going to a more specialized school was the best thing for them.
Another personal experience that supports why public school may not always be the best thing for special needs student was my work as a behavioral aide. The students we take in couldn't handle public school because of various behavioral issues and need a more intensive environment than a traditional public school environment. In the particular program I worked in (it was a relationship based program for students on the autism spectrum), there was more 1:1 attention and the schedule was more flexible which allowed us to cater to the individual needs of the student than a traditional public school environment. I saw the students progress and respond well to the more individualized approach of the school. The benefit of nonpublic schools is that since they don't have to cater to the needs of neurotypical students enables students with disabilities to get their social, academic and emotional needs met.
Another example in which integration can sometimes not work for people is in the workplace. The idea is that people with disabilities should work alongside nondisabled people. While I am against sheltered workshops and the exploitation they provide for those with developmental disabilites, mainstream work environments sometimes aren't the most welcoming or embracing either. While I was lucky to find a work environment that was supportive and embracing, I have heard of people having bad experiences whether if it was with their bosses, co-workers etc. For those who didn't have success in a traditional work environment would benefit from an out of the box approach. This is why I like the idea of a micro business that only employs workers with developmental disabilites. For instance, Extroardinary Ventures a nonprofit based in North Carolina provides vocational opportunities in which those with developmental disabilities can sample different jobs and see which ones would suit their individual needs. With this type of model, accommodations are ensured and job coaches are there every step of the way to make sure it is successful.
A second counterargument in which some pro-inclusion activists seem to overlook is that some people with disabilities don't enjoy or want the same life experiences that people without disabilities typically enjoy. An article written in Psychology Today by a mother of an autistic young man argues how sometimes kids with "severe" disabilities (as well as some with mild to moderate impairments) may want to only have relationships with support staff instead of traditional unpaid friendships that most people take for granted and how inclusion advocates shouldn't dismiss these types of relationships as inferior. In that same article, she also argues that kids with autism sometimes don't enjoy the same events such as birthday parties and community barbecues that are reveled by neurotypicals.
As someone who spends most of the time fully integrated with nondisabled peers, I understand some of the frustrations that are voiced in the article. I've had experiences with both unpaid friends and support staff. The relationships I've felt the closest to were with the people who were paid to be with me (from therapists, school aides and companions). I felt that they were in tune to my needs and understood my disability. They knew and supported my interests in Hello Kitty, Disney Princess, Frozen etc. and never looked down on me for having unconventional interests. It is very hard for me to find unpaid friends my age who share my interests in things like Peppa Pig and other "childlike" cartoons since it is not a common occurrence among people in their 20's. With support staff such as companions, the nature of the relationship and the financial compensation makes them enter "my world" and I don't have to worry of the complexities that are typically common with traditional friends. I also don't enjoy the same experiences like going to noisy nightclubs and getting "wasted" that most of my peers in their 20's seem to enjoy. These examples and scenarios that I just discussed show how the ideals of inclusion are not always in line with the desires of some individuals with developmental disabilities.
My last argument on how integration can sometimes be inappropriate is that sometimes people may only want to hang out with others who share their disabilities. When you are with others who share your struggles, you realize you are not alone and you know right away that you will be embraced and accepted. For example, I take an art and a recreation class in which all the people taking the class are adults with a developmental disabilties. What I like about these classes is that I feel that I can be 100 percent myself knowing that the instructors will be accommodating to my needs. I can freely jump and down and bring my fidget (I carry a sea urchin like squishy toy) knowing that no one will judge me for all my "quirks". However in some states, you cannot use service hours to fund activities (like the classes I currently take) that are exclusive to only those with developmental disabilities just because they are not technically "integrated." It misses the fact that some people had bad experiences with taking integrated activities in which they were bullied, ostracized or simply not welcomed. We all need our "safe spaces" and sometimes taking separate activities with others who share our struggles is preferable at times.
In summary of this blog post, the positions and solutions that are posed by radical inclusion advocates are not always appropriate depending on the situation. I would like to also emphasize the "moderate" part of my argument. Some advocates reading this post might criticize me by saying that I believe in segregation of those with disabilities or that I support institutions, group homes farmsteads and other programs that marginalizes those with disabilities. Firstly, I want to emphasize that I don't believe in programs or models that belittles or emphasizes the inferiority status of people like myself. Secondly , I believe that it is important for people with disabilities to have experience interacting with nondisabled people since it benefits both parties. Inclusion helps break down some of the preconceptions that society holds against those with disabilities. That being said, inclusion is not a "black and white" issue as it so often is portrayed. It has some potential downsides as well. Advocates miss the fact that not all people with disabilities have the same ideas of inclusion and it is important acknowledge this variation of attitudes. We need to take a more balanced approach when it comes to inclusion and realize that inclusion is not the same as self determination. It is the latter that we need to emphasize when supporting those with developmental disabilities.