Inclusion: The Buzz Word that Always Matters

Authors: Emily Coleman, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI)

Keywords: inclusion, marginalization, exclusion, sense of belonging, personal growth

Abstract: Superintendent Emily Coleman tackles the topic of inclusion, discussing the importance of inclusive education and ways to include marginalized students in both large and small ways. She also describes how TSBVI strives to provide inclusive education for all students.

Every August at TSBVI, we kick off the school year with an all-staff “Welcome Back” in our cafeteria, as I’ve often shared in TX SenseAbilities. This year, we also had a special celebration for Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist Bernie Smith, who had her 50th anniversary working at TSBVI. In addition to this remarkable milestone, we talked about the importance of a positive, respectful, and trustworthy workplace culture and ended with an emphasis on inclusion. 

Inclusion has definitely become a buzz word in a lot of spaces and specifically in schools. When the idea of including students with disabilities in mainstream education became formalized in law, inclusion was discussed mostly as a physical location. However, it has greatly evolved over the years to ensure access to not just spaces, but to opportunities and resources for anyone who is potentially excluded or marginalized.

When we think of including “anyone who is marginalized,” it can feel too big to handle, but we don’t have to think of it as a big thing. We can tackle inclusion one topic or event at a time. In the book Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley, she states, “Activities in one part of the whole create effects in distant places. Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system.” I believe this relates to TSBVI because by including each other and our students more and more in small ways, we can create greater inclusion across our programs and our community.

Providing inclusive opportunities for students is a primary objective for us. Outreach seeks to set-up programs in districts where students can contribute, have meaningful relationships, and become independent. Short-Term Programs aim to provide those opportunities here and through online services. Comprehensive school-day and residential teams are seeking inclusion through every moment of the day and ensuring students on our campus don’t miss out or are excluded from an opportunity. 

Providing an example of inclusion, I shared the story of my son Eddie at summer camp. Eddie is 18 and blind with multiple disabilities. He never minds going to camp, but he is always anxious about what he’ll do there. As I drove the two hours to drop him off, I was trying to talk to him about the adventures that awaited. I said, “Eddie, are you excited about horseback riding?” He said, “No horseback riding.” “Eddie, are you excited about camp songs?” He said, “No camp songs.” I said, “Eddie, are you excited to do arts and crafts?” He said, “No, arts and crafts. Arts and crafts is finished!”

So, when he returned home from camp a week later, he had a few t-shirts in his bag that were clearly decorated with puffy paint. The first shirt said, “Protest, protest club.” I thought, “I wonder what they were protesting?” The next shirt said simply, “Bye, arts and crafts,” and the third said something about arts and crafts being finished. This made me laugh out loud because he clearly was trying to avoid the activity, and they found a way to include him, by using his protest language within the art. As staff support for him was 2:1, they could have easily walked away from arts and crafts and done something else. Instead, they worked to include him. They even added braille puff paint to the print. This is inclusion in action. 

As we all embark upon another school year with our children and students, let’s remember to consider how they could possibly be excluded throughout their days and make sure we do our best to avoid it. Exclusion is often the easiest choice, but it’s rarely the best. We can all work harder to be inclusive in meaningful ways that foster a sense of belonging and personal growth—not only with our students, but with each other.

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