When inclusion means welcome, not mere acceptance
A friend recently experienced the recurring nightmare of a parent with a special needs child. While her typically developing daughter, who is 6, was in ballet class, her son, who is 4 and has Down syndrome, darted in and out of the dance studio, making a whirlwind of himself as boys are wont to do.
Immediately after the class, the teacher hurried toward my friend. She pointed to the boy and demanded, ”Let’s try him out in the class!”
Did that teacher just offer to teach this wily child? Probably not the reaction my friend was expecting after an arduous hour of preventing him from bringing down the room and distracting little girls in tutus.
The instructor insisted: She wished to include a child with Down syndrome in her class. When I heard this I nearly fell off my chair. Does she know what she’s asking?
My own son, 5, who loves The Nutcracker, is simultaneously adorable and destructive. I try to protect the world from the havoc he intends to wreak. Nevertheless, with such an invitation, I called this ballet teacher. She couldn’t wait to try him out.
Inclusion has come a long way. Children with special needs can go to typical schools, attend extracurricular activities and young adults can get jobs, all with only a modicum of pushback.
But a gap remains: Many accept, but few actively seek us out.
And that’s okay. Inclusion isn’t on everyone’s radar. But it is on ours now, and we are slightly obsessed with it.
As parents, we trade stories of who wants or loves our kids, vs. who accepts them, and who outright rejects them. We share our battle scars too: One insurance company gives this but not that, while another will pay, but only after a fight. The Ministry of Education allots hours for a child’s shadow — hours conspicuously less than the school week and which never include the afternoon program. We pound tables, make demands and try to blaze an easier, or at least less antagonistic, path.
We are tired of fighting, weary of advocating. We are drained of personal, financial and emotional resources when it comes to securing the best opportunities for our children. But carry on we must.
So imagine when someone doesn’t just “accept” us because, anyway, it’s the law. But instead, someone wants us, must have a child with special needs, like, say, a dancer with Down syndrome in her ballet class?
Imagine when the principal of a kindergarten tells us he is actively seeking students with special needs in order to promote inclusion. We registered there in a heartbeat. And the same when the owners of a private daycare literally asked around for children with special challenges.
Imagine when the head of Shutaf, an inclusive summer camp, messaged me to find out if my son was old enough to be a part of their program.
Imagine the restoration we experience when we discover someone who doesn’t just take our children (which is excellent and lawful), but wants our children (which causes us to fall off our seats, because it so moves our hearts).
It is like water to our jaded souls. We pause, heal a little, thank God for those people and head off to our next battle.
Our ballet teacher set a tone of welcome on her dance floor. In his first lesson my son attempted about half of the moves (in between opening random doors in the studio and trying to commandeer the stereo). By the third lesson, an open house, he performed! That is to say, he stuck with the group most of the time and free-style danced the rest. Oh, and threw a ball at the audience. And, at some mortifying point, kicked the legs of everyone in the front row (perhaps attempting a Grand Battement?). Unfazed, the teacher carried on. Her love and welcome drew him back into the circle of dancers.
We were amazed, proud and utterly embarrassed. Not necessarily in that order.
I was elated about this investment in the future — not just my son’s or mine, but for society in general. For one, he surely made the other parents feel good about their own children’s abilities.
And more importantly, at the year-end recital in a few months, everyone will see how dramatically far he has come and they too will marvel at the miracle of inclusion, further diffusing this spirit of welcome.
All thanks to one teacher who sought us.