Posted by: Ken Sampson | October 12, 2012

Longing to Belong

It is an unsurprising and well-known concept that people, whose social network is diverse, generally enjoy a happier and healthier life than their counterparts who are either isolated or alienated.  It would stand to reason, therefore, that providing a caring atmosphere with on-going peer support for students with extreme and diverse learning needs would in fact promote a healthy and rich environment for all. 

Although, in many cases, it is easy to notice people with physical disabilities, the reality is that we have more in common with people than we sometimes care to realize.  First and foremost, we are an intellectual people with the ability to make choices.  Further, we have the capacity to love and the deepened desire to be loved in return.  In his book From Disability to Possibility:  The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, Patrick Schwarz clearly states that, “Without the knowledge and education that people with disabilities are more similar to nondisabled people than different a double standard is created.”  Erroneous assumptions are made, to the detriment of the person afflicted with a disability.

This week, I had the great fortune of meeting Nathan Devlin, who, as a young man severely afflicted with cerebral palsy, recently graduated from high school and is now attending college.   Nathan’s upbringing was such that he was included and integrated with his peers throughout his school-aged years. Undoubtedly, Nathan’s friends benefited from his presence and friendship, which could only have been realized in an inclusive environment.  His peers would have gained an incredible understanding and empathy into his unique needs as a person.  Could these relationships have developed in any other context?  I would suggest not at all.

In a special presentation hosted by (IN)spired Education, students at two of our Catholic schools had the delightful opportunity to meet Nathan.  Although he is non-verbal, Nathan is able to communicate with the assistance of text-to-voice technology.  Further, Nathan is able to communicate with others through eye contact and facial gestures, thus assisting to bridge the basic human needs of intra-personal communication and relationship building.  Students were able to learn and better understand some fundamental principles about Nathan as a person – understanding of some of his desires and basic social needs.  In fact, these typically developing students were able to problem solve solutions that break down the barriers which prevent people like Nathan from being included.  At the very core of a person’s being is the need to belong and to be part of a social network, regardless of one’s abilities or limitations.

As a far-reaching yet paralleled example, when we are learning to speak a new language, we are not pulled out of the language-rich environment to learn and study in isolation.  Rather, we are immersed into the very heart of the community, learning from and through one another.  The same holds true for developing social skills; we learn in the context of the immediate community, not in seclusion. 

Why, then, do we remove children from the regular mainstreamed surroundings of typically developing students to learn social skills, for example?  It makes no sense.  We are only widening the already existing gap.  Let us do the right thing and provide a nurturing and loving environment that is conducive to the social growth and development of our students.  Let us do our part in enabling our students to belong.  As teachers, we are called to do exactly this.


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