The problem of inclusion and fairness

I began writing this post last March. And then a pandemic happened and circumstances changed and I abandoned it. But I think the discussion is just as relevant now, if not more so. So I’m going to attempt to dust it off and finish writing it. Here’s how I began…

There is a fairly well-known image that is used in discussions about equality. The picture shows 3 children of different heights trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. In the first frame, each child has a crate to stand on, but only the two tallest children can see over the fence. This frame is labelled “Equality.” In the second frame, the tallest child has given his crate to the shortest child. Now all the children can see. The image is labeled “Equity.”

Over the years the image has circulated, the quality of the graphics, the labels on the message, the symbols have been debated, and the interpretations have been varied. Below is a common one used in education and discussions. The 3rd frame is often labeled “inclusion” and represents the systemic barriers being removed.

Equity-Equality-Graphic-blog

It seems that I have been having a LOT of conversations lately about how to include Patrick. Since the start of the (2019-2020) year, we’ve had a lot of new transitions. And that means we’re trying to figure out how to fit into a lot of new settings.

The biggest one has been over the subject of P.E.

Here’s what happened. One of my best friends at Patrick’s school was also working part-time as the elementary school P.E. paraprofessional. (a.k.a non-credentialed teacher.)

One day, she called me up FUMING about what was going on at the school. Apparently, they were having trouble with some students choosing not to participate during P.E. and other “specials” classes. The principal had told the teachers that they needed to give a grade for the class, and since it was a pass/fail class, they were looking at giving failing grades to students who refused to participate.

Enter Patrick. Patrick has a combination of disabilities that prevent him from participating fully in a regular P.E. class. He has cerebral palsy that makes it difficult to control the muscles, particularly those in his legs, especially when running. He has visual tracking problems from his brain injury that make it very difficult for him to follow a ball. He has trouble with motor planning, meaning the ability to think through the steps of a motor process that, for others, wouldn’t be consciously broken down. He has serious ADHD that make it hard for him to focus in a chaotic environment. He has working memory impairments, or in other words, problems with his short term memory that mean he can suddenly forget what he is supposed to be doing. And, to top it off, his transplant puts him at exceptional risk of injury from a fall or a blow to the abdomen and he is required to be excluded from contact sports. (Dodgeball, anyone?)

Patrick’s IEP provides for “adaptive P.E. services,” meaning that instead of being required to pass a regular P.E. class, he gets to work with a special P.E. teacher who adapts P.E. to his abilities and works on specific goals.

The problem is this.. Patrick is in a mainstream classroom. And the schedule of that classroom includes the class going to P.E. while the teacher used that time as prep time in the class. And, even though I knew he couldn’t really play, I didn’t see much harm in allowing him to go to P.E. because that’s what his classmates were doing.

But apparently, what was happening was that Patrick, unable to do what the rest of his class was doing, would try to visit with the adults. His para would tell him he needed to go play, and because he couldn’t, he wouldn’t. He’d just sit on the side and patiently watch.

So, when they started talking about who should receive a failing grade for not participating, Patrick’s name made the list.

My friend was furious because she knew this was wrong. Let’s be honest. No one would have been talking about failing a kid in a wheelchair for not doing P.E. We’d had multiple conversations about what he should and should not be doing as she’d made her lesson plans. So she went to an administrator, who pulled the IEP, marched it into the principal’s office, and demanded that he intervene.

Patrick didn’t fail P.E. But it made some of the staff who work with him angry about how “unfair” that was to the other students who saw him not playing.

But it made me aware that I had not done enough in setting clear expectations for P.E. with the school. Enter advocate mom. I called for a special IEP meeting to get clear adaptations written.

Now, Patrick attends an exceptional school. So when I went into the meeting saying that I needed them to make a plan specifically to allow Patrick to be excluded from the P.E. requirement, they insisted instead that they needed to write a plan for him to be included instead.

Plan A. that they wrote didn’t work. Plan A was to require the paras to lead alternative activity for the students (yes, multiple) who could not do the regular P.E. activity and were sitting out. The argued that they kids who were choosing not to participate would choose the easier activity instead. (In hindsight, I disagree with this opinion. Why not allow mainstream students to sometimes do adapted activities? That’s inclusive, right?)

On to Plan B. My friend, because she knew us personally and cared enough to see the individual, started go over her lesson plans with me at our weekly breakfasts. We’d decide what Patrick could do that was related to her plan. Sometimes, that was giving him a special role in a game. (Basket holder, line judge, etc.) Other times that was giving him a simplified version of the activity. (While the other kids shoot hoops, Patrick will practice passing with the help of an adult.) I dropped in on class unannounced and helped to model what this would be like for the staff that was there.

Plan B is what worked.

And it got me thinking a lot more about inclusion.

In children’s Sunday School, we run through scenarios regularly about how to Choose the Right. And a common example is “There’s a new kid” or “There’s a kid others don’t like” or “There’s a kid who isn’t good at a game” … anyway.. there’s a kid, and the other kids don’t want to let them play or let them eat lunch with them or whatever. What do you do?

The answer is, you let them play anyway. Right?

But is it inclusion if it stops there? Is it enough to “let them” attend? Was it enough that Patrick was sitting in P.E. on the stage alone? He didn’t mind. He didn’t want to play. If you asked him to get up and do what the other kids were doing, he’d give a polite “nah.” He was fine, right? He was welcome.

But is that inclusion?

Look again at the picture at the top of the page. The short kid is invited to watch the baseball game. He’s even given a box. It’s totally fair.

Or is it? Is it more fair to give him the box the tall kid is standing on? That way at least he can see. But the tall kid doesn’t get a box that way. Isn’t it more fair for every kid to get a box?

The thing is, adaptation isn’t fair. But it’s at least a start.

One of the things I love about distance learning is that I’m in charge of the school day, so Patrick actually gets all of his accommodations. We use a Kindle with OpenDyslexic font for reading. He can use special manipulatives or a calculator or Google Home to help with math. And he’s getting very good at using Google Read and Write and other adaptive technology.

Adaptations level the playing field so that physical limitations don’t get in the way of him reaching his potential. In P.E., adaptations were changes to game rules, simplified activities, or special equipment. Patrick’s school spends a lot of time teaching him to advocate for his accommodations. One way we as a society can be more inclusive would be to not push back against allowing these when they are justified.

But inclusion CAN be more than that. Because true inclusion sometimes means being willing to change the rules for everyone.

Think, for example, of food allergies. If someone has a life-threatening food allergy, adaptation would say that you allow that person to bring their own food to lunch, instead of eating what everyone else is eating. But if others at the table are eating the allergen, inviting and allowing differences is still not enough. Allergens can be spread by touch, and so we have nut-free classrooms and even nut-free schools. That’s the only way, literally, than a child can safely come to the table.

If done right, inclusion benefits more than just the person with the most apparent need. But it takes some creativity.

Here’s an example. I taught a Sunday school class for 3 year olds. We had one student who every week hid under the table. We had another student who always wanted to remove her shoes. Yes, we could have said that the rules required that everyone sit on their chairs and wear their shoes. And everyone would have learned the rules. But a couple would have spent so much energy on that lesson that there’d have been no time to talk about Christ. So what did we do? We put away the chairs and we sat on the floor. Everyone was allowed to have their shoes off if they wanted. And kids under the table could see the pictures. The only rule was that they had to allow other kids to have a turn under the table, too. Because ALL 3 year olds are sensory creatures and the adaptation that one needed benefited them all.

But inclusion also means being willing to let go of traditional ways of doing things sometimes. And I think that’s the hardest part.

Sometimes, when I get to speak to a group of Patrick’s peers about inclusion, I read them the book “Can I play too?” by “Mo Willems.” Here’s a read along if you don’t know the story:

I like this story because it really captures in a lot of ways what it’s like to try to play when you have a disability or other difference.
1) We don’t always know how to make it work when we start trying to play.
2) A lot of times, what we try fails.
3) After enough failures, the person with the difference will decide they are causing too much trouble and withdraw.
4) Some of the best solutions are the ones people might never have considered.

This is why I love adaptive sports. Because they remove the primary obstacle to inclusion: winning. They also toss out several rules. I remember attending one adaptive baseball game where a player wanted a hit. So they threw him 27 pitches. 27 misses, and then he knocked it out of the park!! And the crowd went wild as he ran his home run.

This is the picture where the wooden fence has been replaced by a chain link. Where there isn’t an obstacle that gives some an advantage over others. This is what people are referring to when they talk about systemic problems.

For Patrick, being graded on participation a typical P.E. class was a systemic problem.

2020 made us acutely aware of so many other systemic problems. The inequalities revealed in our healthcare system, in our justice system, and so many more all came to the surface in violent and devastating ways. And I think a lot of us feel absolutely helpless in the face of systems that we don’t have any idea how to change.

Because, let’s be honest. Inclusion isn’t always possible. Not all sports can be adaptive. Not all diets can be nut-free. You can’t just say you want a system with more social programs when those programs don’t yet exist. We need to be challenged by school or sports to grow, and that means pushing people to their limits.

You also can’t force inclusion. Another thing that 2020 has shown us is that mandates are met with opposition. That opposition comes because broad mandates create new systemic problems that make people feel overlooked.

The thing is that MOST of us really are trying our best. Most of us do care about doing what is right. And what most of us crave most deeply is to feel seen and valued. Especially for our best efforts, even when they are inadequate.

Columnist David Brooks put it this way:

“Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known.”

David Brooks, “Finding the Road to Character,” October 2019

He went on to say that a trait we all have to get better at is “the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen.”

Inclusion doesn’t happen by pulling one group out of the shadows and pushing another into it. This is one of the great risks of today’s cancel culture.

It may be an unpopular idea, but I’m not sure that systems CAN be fixed from the top down. Instead, I think that if we want to see our society change in a significant way, it’s going to need to be something that happens on a much more intimate level.

Here’s another great quote:

I believe the change we seek in ourselves and in he groups we belong to will come less by activism and more by actively trying every day to understand one another.

Sharon Eubank, “By Union of Feeling We Obtain Power with God”, October 2020

To be honest, when large-scale changes have been made to try to include Patrick, the result has almost always been awkwardness that made us ALL pull back. Plan A where they ran a whole separate P.E. section for him would have made everyone feel uncomfortable.

But Plan B worked precisely because it was personal, thoughtful, and simple.

We simply need to start seeing each other.

I think we also need to extend each other more grace. If mortality is a school, then we are all going to make mistakes as we learn. We will all sometimes be on the giving side of some hurts. We would benefit from being as quick to grant forgiveness as we are eager to receive it.

On Valentine’s Day this year, I knew that traditional Valentine’s parties were going to leave out every student who was learning from home. As PTO president, I had some power to try to make things better. So, in addition to providing usual support for valentine’s parties, I spent several hours creating virtual valentine’s exchanges, online games and other activities that could be played with the students both in class and those connecting digitally from home.

Patrick’s sweet teacher went out of her way to buy craft supplies so that the class could make each other valentines. And she instructed the class to remember the kids at home and make them for them, too.

But that left home learners entirely on the outside. they were remembered, but not included. And, I’ll admit, after all my effort, I was hurt to still be literally on the outside looking in.

Some attempts at inclusion are a BIG miss.

But that doesn’t change the fact that he has a teacher who very truly cares about him. Who stays late sometimes just to visit with him after the other students have gone. Carrying that hurt would only hurt me. The slight wasn’t intentional.

Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure I exactly know.

I do hope, though, that if I make our experience seen that it will help as we all try to do better at seeing each other. We have too much anonymity in our society. It’s easy to get caught up in “us” and “them” when you speak generally.

But the more you get to know people as individuals, the more natural it is to try to love and take care of each other. What is that quote? “people are hard to hate close up. Move in.”

In other words, we do start with that sunday school answer. We notice the people sitting on the sidelines and we invite them. But it goes a bit deeper than just inviting. We get to know them.

And then we consider each other’s needs. And we make ourselves open to different ways of doing things. We try. If we fail, we forgive and we try again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s