by Lauri Hunt
Imagine being told you can no longer attend your school or job because you are too different from the other people that are there. Would you challenge this or just say ok and leave?
Being told directly or indirectly that because your brain works differently that you must be educated in a segregated setting, outside of your community was hard for Henry to hear, but, because he’s been surrounded with people and information that counter this belief he was confident enough to stand up when confronted with it. Henry knows he is exactly who he is meant to be. Wonderful. Complete. Whole. He has grown up knowing that he does not need to be “fixed” but celebrated, accepted and supported. Why would he think school would be any different?
Some people truly believe that students on the autism spectrum and those labeled with more “significant” disabilities are better served in segregated settings. They feel that students with disabilities will learn more with other students with disabilities; that the presence of students with disabilities will hold back the students without disabilities. Replace the word disability with any other marginalized minority group and this all sounds so familiar. This is the same line of reasoning that was used to defend segregating people of color in schools. Brown vs the Board of Education demonstrated that separate was not equal then and the same holds true now.
Henry clearly saw that segregation is not ok just because that is all that is offered. He saw that this was not about him as an individual, but a problem with the system. He knows that he is valued, respected and accepted for being exactly who he is, not only by family and friends, but by countless others in the world.
We know that over thirty years of research demonstrates not only is inclusion socially just, it is a better way to educate all students. ‘Inclusion as Education Reform’, a research article by Caustin-Theoharis/Theoharis (2010), shows that test scores improve for all students when all learners are included.
We know that inclusion and acceptance are not privileges, but basic human rights.
Our entire family (most importantly Henry) had an absolute and unwavering conviction that attending his neighborhood school as a fully included sixth grader was the right thing.
There are many wonderful national and local advocacy groups to help support families and students with disabilities. We were extremely fortunate to have The Autistic Self Advocacy Network; The National Center on Inclusive Education, UNH/IOD; Autism Society of Florida; and people like Ari Ne’eman, Mary Schuh, Cheryl Jorgensen, and Ven Sequenzia who were directly involved and contributed significantly to our ability to approach the school district with the unwavering conviction that inclusion is the right thing.
Going to conferences on inclusive education, self-advocacy, autism, and special education law was very helpful to our entire family. It is hard to express how very wonderful it is to be in environments so full of acceptance, respect, appreciation, and generosity. It is life changing.
Three of the four people that were on the IEP call we know from conferences and were with them at the Autism Summer Institute in Concord, New Hampshire last summer. We were able to build our network that we relied on heavily for support and advice and, most importantly, Henry was able to build his.
Henry actively sought out role models and mentors for his advocacy. He decided to do something because he saw other advocates doing something, standing up for change. Henry took his stand. He created a social media campaign enlisting almost 10,000 supporters from around the world and the attention of local and national media.
Not only are advocates like Ari Ne’eman and Tracy Thresher leading by example, they are actively supporting young self-advocates in creating change within their own communities. Henry is now doing the same for others.
Acceptance and Inclusion go hand in hand.