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A Better Way to Inspire Inclusivity in Education



Education systems often make it enforceable by law that all children, including those with disabilities, are in school.  These children then find themselves placed in systems, often in an accessible separate building or with limited access to peers.  This is Representation but not Inclusion.


For Inclusion to happen a child must feel as if he or she belongs.  Representation without belonging is fundamentally exclusive despite its aims.

Ted Packer’s* classes are unconventional (the best type).  Many students take the course because they must, not because they particularly want to be inclusive, nor because they particularly want to teach students with disabilities.  Instead of being offered a lot of theory on inclusion, Ted puts his students ‘in relationship with people who are different’ by inviting people with disabilities to be interviewed by himself and his students.

Each student is obliged to ask one question.  They can ask anything they feel courageous enough to ask. Ted points out that the people he invites know and trust him.  That bank of trust is essential for mutual vulnerability. The questions he models and the way he follows up on students’ questions reinforce the trust and creates safety for the interviewee.

At first the questions might be inconsequential but soon students find themselves surprised by the answers to questions like  ‘What’s the most challenging part of being blind?’ or ‘Do you resent the person who caused the accident that paralysed you?’.

Ted promises his students that they will feel uncomfortable in his course.  Students think he means with the disability they are confronted with. Instead they are confronted with their own differences in the bigger trauma of being human, in the way they process life, forgiveness, purpose, identity and a myriad of other aspects of being human that each of the interviewees represent. 

Perhaps an interviewee has muscular dystrophy,  Ted tells his class not to expect to understand the interviewee’s speech at first.  To stay with the discomfort of not knowing, of not being in control. And each time a student reports that a couple of minutes later, they find they understand the speaker. At the beginning of all interviews, students see the person only through the veil of his disability.  Increasingly as the speaker shares his/her real story the students see the disability through the veil of the person in front of them.

Then they are coached to respond with: Thank you. This, Ted says, is transformational.  The response is not sympathy, not ‘I know how you feel’ but gratitude only.  The speaker feels validated and seen. Students are asked to reflect on what they felt, what they saw, what they heard and what they related to.   This is their Assessment,  not an abstract list of boxes to tick on a form about a person with disabilities but a true insight into another. Analysis and Accommodation can only be genuinely inclusive when Assessment is deeply human like this.  

Teachers, Ted explains, cannot accept what they don’t even acknowledge.  In exploring the story, they are able to see the person with disabilities well enough to acknowledge the disability, not detach from it for the sake of their own discomfort but keep talking until they see, feel, hear and relate to him/her.  Only then can they discover what inclusion might really mean.

The conventional approach to disability is like an upside down stick figure:  We address the physical first, assume what accommodations need to be made; wondering about the implications on the person's functionality in society.  This leaves the head dangling, the real individual cognitive response to being disabled.  It doesn’t even touch heart: the emotional and relational aspects of their story.

Ted’s approach flips the approach the right way up.

We look at cognitive implications first (reflected in the questions we ask in true analysis).  Then we look at the body, the physical and behavioural aspects of being disabled and then we don’t leave out the heart:  The implications on mental health, relationships and wellbeing for the person with disabilities.

With this framework for asking we can see people not only for the challenges they have but for the deep contribution they can make to us as listeners.  They have something more to offer than being an example of a person in a chair or a person who cannot hear. They come to teach as persons who have and are facing grief and loss. Of people who learnt how to fail and of people who live well in limitation as we all must. And that educates students, not on disabilities but on being inclusive AND included in the human experience.

Ted offered me a framework for the nagging sense that I’ve had that I must represent real people with their real stories in teacher training on inclusion.  I would wonder whether such an approach is academic, robust or content-rich enough.  I imagined how I would ‘beef it up’ with inclusive practices or theory.   I’ve been feeling for some time that, despite a love for research and a knack for presenting content, I am being called to host human connection that fosters relationships and belonging in which learning can happen organically.  

This is what I would love: for these courses to move my own learning along a path of exploring learning through heart, through connection and belonging and for me to grow in understanding that this is not a nice thing to have in education for students that are in some way different; but that being inclusive is a prerequisite for the kind of classrooms, schools, coaching spaces and facilitation platforms in which people can learn things of value.  





*Ted Packer has directed vocational rehabilitation services at Rehab Without Walls in Phoenix Arizona for the past 32 years. 

 

Rehab without walls provides neuro rehabilitation services for individuals with traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries. Packer develops and implements programmes for persons returning to school or work by addressing the assessment, analysis, and accommodations for and with the injured individual at the person’s jobsite and in the person’s home and community. At Rehab Without Walls they believe that there is a reciprocal value for both the injured individual and his or her employer, coworkers, family and community, with cultural and societal implications, as well. 

 

He has also  taught as a Special Education and Teacher Education Leadership Assistant Professor at Eastern Michigan University, Mesa Community College, Phoenix College, Grand Canyon University, and most recently at Arizona State University and National University, for the past 25 years. He is currently working on a committee at ASU that is led by the former state director of public education and meeting to develop a new model of educational service delivery with students with disabilities. 

 

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