I wrote this when Jessie was just 2 years old. Mary Anne Kazmierski found a bursary for me to go to the McGill Summer Institute. While the McGill Summer Institute no longer exists, its newer form is still alive and well and can be accessed through the Inclusion Network. This piece reflects the beginning of our relationship with inclusion, community, and Mary Anne and Carl Kazmierski. My how they changed our lives with their ideas, their love, their support, and their willingness to do battle. I will never be as strong as Mary Anne, or as faithful, but I hope that when I get tired, I can think of her and remember the difference one person can make in a community.
The birth of our daughter Jessie over two and a half years ago catapulted me over the edge of a precipice into what felt like a bottomless pit of dashed expectations and hopeless explanations. I had no choice about going over the edge of that particular precipice. Jessie, who had just one extra chromosome, also pushed us into territory marked by unbounded caring, love, commitment, pain, laughter, and fear.
The McGill Summer Institute on Integrated Education brought me to the edge of another precipice. A different precipice—for I now have a choice about whether or not to jump.
I went to McGill out of curiosity. I wanted to sort out some of the questions I had about integration/inclusion and (as any parent of a toddler can appreciate) I want to see what it would be like having adult conversations with real adults for days at a time!
In don’t think it was just the novelty of intelligent conversation that made my experience at McGill such a water shed. Nor was it just the electricity of Marsha Forrest, or the quiet concern of Jack Pearpoint, or the penetrating insight of Judith Snow, or the wide range of emotion and experience of the other individuals who were there, like me, to share and learn. It was all of these things together, and then something else. I won’t call it magic, because you may not read any further, but is was something in the realm of magic—a kind of quiet transformation, an inward exploration that radically focused my attention.
I could try to describe who I met there (Inez from Bogota, Sue from England, Chris from the North West Territories), what new information I picked up (MAPS, circles, and PATHs), and what happened (I talked, I listened, I cried) during those two weeks in Montreal, but is seems kind of meaningless out of context. The best I can say is GO! The next best thing I can share is how it affected me.
Through incredibly well-orchestrated community lectures (storytelling really), workshops, group discussions, hands-on learning, and one-to-one sharing, I was challenged to dream and to give voice to my fear. And by doing so my whole perception of our life as a family in a community underwent a radical shift.
From being emotionally sort-of committed to the idea of integration for my daughter and anybody else who had the courage and energy to fit for it, I am now intellectually , philosophically, and emotionally committed to creating a community that can embrace and include all its children. A community that has the ability to celebrate the gifts that each and every one of us bring into the world to share with others.
I ask different questions now.
I used to think in terms of promoting those skills in Jessie that would make her ready to be a part of our local preschool and in the future our local elementary school. Now I’m also asking what skills, what supports our preschool and elementary schools need to work on to welcome Jessie. Maybe it’s not a question of getting Jessie ready for school, but of getting school ready for Jessie an any other child who has been labeled or categorized in order to deny them access to a classroom.
Because it’s no longer about granting access. It’s about basic human rights.
I used to support integration from the point of view of a parent of a child with special needs. Integration then meant that my child would be able to reap the benefits (and the heartaches) of being a part of our community. But maybe the point is that our community, our schools, need to have the chance to reap the benefits (and the heartaches) of having Jessie as a full-fledged participant. The focus shifts from just Jessie and her needs to include our needs as a community. While Jessie needs to feel a part of our family and our community (and that’s a pretty basic human need) our own family, our friends, and our neighbours deserve the chance to re-evaluate and strengthen their own feelings of acceptance, love, understanding, and self-worth. Jessie has a gift to give. The question is: Do you want to find out just what that gift is?
As Judith Snow would say “Walking is a gift. And not walking is also a gift. Speaking is a gift. And not speaking is a different kind of gift. Being able to put your pants on right is a gift. And not being able to put your pants on right offers endless possibilities for different kinds of gifts.”
There are going to be compromises. There are going to be difficult questions. There are not going to be any guarantees. Because inclusion is not a product. Inclusion is a process.
I think it’s the only way to go if we want to try to build caring, creative, and fearless communities.
I’m ready to take that leap over the edge. To commit my energy to fighting for and creating inclusive communities. And it starts right here in my home. I know that I can’t do it by myself, and I’ve found that I don’t have to. That’s the beauty of leaping—it’s amazing how many people are willing to hold your hand.
It’s the only way to go if we want to try to build caring, creative, and fearless communities.
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