– otherwise known as the post in which I ruminate on the “other” and whether inclusion or exclusion is the answer.**

We (those of us who fit in to a dominant group) like to tell people who don’t (the other) how they should live. And then we often expect gratitude from them for our generosity in thinking about their “best interests.”

One of the books I’m currently reading is “Developmental Disabilities and Child Welfare.” by Ronald Hughes and Judith Rycus. This book, published in 1998, is a good primer for anyone looking to become more informed about how child welfare professionals need to understand and respond to children in the child welfare system with disabilities. While reading this book earlier today, I was struck by the author’s discussion about the importance of the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream settings (here I believe they mostly are referring to educational settings, but could definitely be expanded to all settings in which typically developing children interact).

The authors stress that segregation is a disservice to both individuals with disabilities as well as to society in large, because for the individual it 1) denies the person the opportunity to be part of the same world as anyone else, 2) it sends a message that they inherently can’t participate in the same activities as the rest of society, and 3) singles them out for special treatment rather than treating them as their typically-abled peers.

The disadvantage to society at large is that segregation perpetuates the stereotypes and myths about persons with disabilities, and that society will not recognize the many contributions that are made to society by persons with disabilities . The authors write, “An extension of this myth is that people with disabilities prefer life and activities with ‘their own kind.’ It is true that years of segregation can contribute to feelings of anxiety and fear when a person with a disability is confronted with an integrated environment…This myth is often a rationalization to cover and reinforce our own discomfort in the presence of persons with disabilities” (p.23).

What concerns me a little bit about this statement is that is seems to me to ignore disability culture. Persons with disabilities have, for years, struggled to be included in mainstream society. We have, as a dominant able-bodied majority, treated persons with disabilities as non-human – institutionalizing them and segregating them away from society. We have come a long way since the days of Willowbrook – in large part due to the self-advocacy groups that fought for disability rights. But in our rush to integrate, are we discouraging and/or limiting the opportunities for persons with disabilities to belong to communities in which they are able to have a safe place to express their feelings and thoughts about disability (theoretically, as personally experienced, or in any other way) outside of the ever-patronizing eyes of “mainstream” society?

Are we swinging the pendulum too far over the other way in our attempts to distance ourselves from the horrible policies and practices that were once imposed on persons with disabilities in our society? Is the full mainstreaming of children with disabilities to the point of limiting exposure and community with the disability community at large another way for the able-bodied dominant culture to silence the disability community? Why are we not making sure that children with disabilities have access to both?

I’ll give you a poor analogy. As someone who was adopted from South Korea into a white, Midwestern home, my parents were advised by their social workers to fully integrate me into “American culture” (which to them, American did not mean Asian American). I had no idea there was a Korean American community within 2o miles from where I grew up!  Social workers today do not advocate for full assimilation of children adopted transracially – in fact, they advocate that the parents work to integrate the child into the child’s racial and ethnic community.

I’ll give you another example I was once told by a child welfare professional. There was a child in a rural area of my state who had a hearing impairment. One day the child met an adult with the same hearing impairment and was shocked – he told his social worker that he thought children with hearing impairments died when they were children because he had never met an adult with a hearing impairment before.

We need both – the opportunity to be an equal part of society in all the ways we are able, and we also need to be in safe spaces with others who have shared our experiences. The disability rights movement was highly critical of the way they were treated by social work professionals as well as society at large – and everyone who was speaking for them and making decisions for them without actually asking them what they needed and wanted. I don’t want to be overly cynical, but I hope social workers are not part of the movement to shelter children with disabilities away from the larger disability community in an preemptive effort to silence them before they ever get their voice.

Edited to add: There is a huge world of difference between inclusion and assimilation…the more I think about this, the more I realize that might be where my question lies. I am all for inclusion, but not assimilation. We should not pretend that disabilities do not exist or continue to ignore difference. Difference is good, not something that should be “treated” or “cured.”

**of course, I’m being intentionally obnoxious by posing this as an either/or.

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