So there is a push for more and more inclusion these days. One body of evidence supporting this trend is the pressure placed on intervention specialists and speech-language pathologists, for example, to deliver services in the general education classroom. Some professionals are uncomfortable with this model and others are diving in head first. For many, I think, both their enthusiasm and fear place them somewhere in the middle. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that inclusion has little to do with where services are delivered or how.
I’ve been watching our son Mateo run cross country for his third season in a row. His first seasons were spent in the 7th and 8th grades of middle school. We were encouraged to have Mateo join the cross country team by a principal and our special education director back then. It didn’t cross our minds for a moment, despite the fact that Mateo has a runner’s body and a whole lot of energy to expend. We had our concerns, but Mateo was willing to give it a try so we jumped on board.
Unfortunately, no one informed the middle school cross country coach of this plan and she was utterly ill prepared. Before his first season even officially started, she tried to turn Mateo away from practices. She said she couldn’t properly supervise the team PLUS him. She cited a fear of him getting injured (couldn’t any runner get injured?) or getting lost (he is a human GPS) because he’d fall so far behind the other runners. Suddenly, a team that had been a “no cut” sport for years and years had criteria that had to be met in order for a runner to make the team. And this same coach told me very clearly that she didn’t think Mateo would be able to make the team. Well, he did exactly that. And he proved this coach was wrong on his own. Still, we cited our concerns to our superintendent and director of special education, armed with documents from the Office of Civil Rights regarding inclusion in extracurricular and athletic activities. Truth be told, we always felt that the teachers and administrators were supportive, but having Mateo on the team was simply out of the comfort zone of this particular coach.
The coach insisted he run with an adult aide in races “for safety” despite protests by the entire IEP team, the assistant coaches, and Mateo himself that this support was not needed. Finally, for the last race of his 7th grade season, he ran solo. Well, kind of. Unbeknownst to us until later, the coach had asked a high school runner to accompany him since the IEP team formally determined once and for all that he should run on his own and she still disagreed. But he ran on his own in 8th grade and got stronger and stronger with each race.
Mateo ran for the middle school for two consecutive years, despite this coach, and never finished a race last. He finished his first middle school race as a 7th grader in 19:20 and completed his last race as an 8th grader on the same course in 13:32. His finish time improved in every race. Mateo’s successes didn’t soften this coach in the two years he ran with this team. I can count on one hand the number of times I witnessed her speak to him. It was heartbreaking for us to talk to him about the situation. We were honest and admitted that there are simply people out there who think he is not capable. We encouraged him to prove to that coach (and anyone else standing in his way) what he can do while acknowledging that we cannot change people.
Despite the role model set by this particular coach, his teammates stepped up. They accepted him as a member of the team. We watched as members of his own team encouraged him on the course during races, shouting to him, “Stay with me, Mateo!” as he tried to keep pace or, better yet, “Come on and pass me, Teo!” We were stunned when runners and family members from other teams cheered for him by name. We often overheard other spectators comment on his improved time meet after meet.
Fast forward to this year. Mateo is now a freshman and a varsity cross country runner. He began practicing with his high school team in June. We learned about a four-night running camp the entire team was expected to attend. When we asked his new coach about it, it was simply assumed Mateo would be there. It’s true, the coach admitted he was a little nervous about it. He asked questions about Mateo’s diet, his method of communication and his needs. But here’s the difference: the coach talked to Mateo about all this. Together, they made a plan to ensure that camp would be successful for the entire team and Mateo was part of the team. Mateo came back from camp with dozens of pictures of his teammates taken with his iPad, new campfire stories, a pile of unbelievably smelly laundry and a bunch of new friends.
Today, Mateo returned from an overnight meet in Columbus. He didn’t go on his own only because you can’t keep Manuel away from his races. Mateo had an entire cheerleading squad made up of his incredible big sister, Madeline, an uncle, an aunt, cousins and extended family and friends who live in the area. Mateo achieved another personal record, shaving off a minute and a half from his last best time. He ran his fastest mile ever and finished the 5K race in 23:06. By comparison, he finished his first race of this season in 28:59. He is getting stronger and faster.
He is 100% a member of his varsity cross country team. He is joined at meals by his teammates. He’s congratulated by the entire team for his successes and he does the same for the other runners. He attends team dinners, joins conversations, huddles up with the guys for meetings, pitches in for fundraisers and works his butt off at every single practice so that he can perform better and better with each race. He commiserates with the other runners over sore muscles and bad test grades. They give him a hard time for sitting with 8 girls at lunch every day. He’s just one of the guys.
Today, Manuel told me that he observed Mateo approach his varsity coach and his coach pulled him in for a hug and quietly said, “love you, buddy.”
I think inclusion is a conscious decision. I think it takes an open dialogue and considerable planning. I don’t think it’s easy but the pay-off is HUGE for everyone.
On a slightly related note, our director of special education asked Mateo to deliver a short presentation before our school board to give the members some insight into AAC. Mateo thought about what he wanted to say for a very long time and put a lot of effort into his message. His speech was open and honest and he delivered it this week with such confidence and dignity. I’m grateful to our school board for listening to his voice. His words were absolutely from the heart. Here’s the link:
October is just a few days away. It’s AAC Awareness Month. I challenge everyone to take a moment to imagine not having the ability to speak. Think about spending just a few hours without talking. In fact, ditch your paper and pencil too because so many of our children who cannot use their natural voices also struggle for years and years to obtain access to a reliable means of writing too.
Language + Literacy = Empowerment
You know, it’s occurred to me that this blog isn’t at all what I expected it would be. But then, my journey is taking me on all kinds of wonderful twists and turns.