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Seeing possibilities beyond disabilities

Sharon Speaks Out

What does it mean to be included?June 15, 2016


At St. Coletta we are constantly asked why we are not an inclusive program. This question comes from both federal and local officials and our answer is always the same. We are inclusive but in a different way.

What does it mean to be included? In the world of disabilities inclusion is the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal, but what does it mean for each person and is it for everyone, does it even make sense? A great many people believe that persons with significant intellectual disabilities should be included in all activities even if this really doesn’t really meet their needs. At St. Coletta we believe that people with significant intellectual and physical disabilities should be included in the wider community whenever possible and appropriate. We do not subscribe to the belief that they should be included in strictly academic settings. We know that their difficulties with expressive and receptive language make it impossible for them to access or respond to the information being dispensed. Since the very nature of their disabilities precludes them from participating fully in such settings it is not respectful to place them there.

Compare the type of inclusion practiced in many schools to being assigned to sit all day in a class with native Chinese speakers and being expected somehow, by your mere presence, to discern and benefit from what is being taught. You wouldn’t, you couldn’t. Think of Charlie Brown who hears the teacher saying “Wah, wah, wah.” That is what our people hear and, while that might make the non-disabled among us feel good, it is just wrong. We should always include people based on their strengths not on their weaknesses.

We hold to the belief that people should be included when it makes sense for them and provides them with a positive learning experience. Community integration is the key. Offering people real world experiences that they can access and participate in as fully as possible is true inclusion. Going to the grocery store, using public transportation, working alongside persons without disabilities in vocational settings, going swimming, bowling and eating in restaurants are all things people with intellectual disabilities can do with some degree of understanding. Repeating these experiences enhances learning and independence.

We also believe that people with intellectual disabilities need not always be the ones who have to adapt to an environment that was not meant to suit their needs. Why not flip the coin and have those without disabilities come to us. In that way we are all in a space that we can access equally. At St. Coletta we do this by inviting local schools and community groups to come and garden with us, have lunch or attend a dance. In this way those who are more able to adapt are the ones expected to do so.

So when we speak about inclusion we should not be talking about the way that it is commonly practiced, just for the sake of it, for this can be meaningless. We should be seeking ways to include people that make sense for them. Inclusion is not for everybody all the time.

Sharon B. Raimo, CEO