By Loreta Boskovic, Information Specialist

Research has shown that inclusive classroom placements have positive outcomes for students experiencing disability, affecting everything from improving test scores and increasing achievement of IEP goals to offering students greater access to general education curriculum and typical peer models.

One benefit that really sticks out to me is the invaluable exposure non-disabled students gain by being educated alongside someone experiencing disability. After all, disability is a natural part of the human experience! If we want to change attitudes about disability, let’s start with children by educating them together.

With this in mind, I wanted to share a lovely email exchange FACT Oregon had recently with Rae Lyn, a mom who wrote,

a boy and a girl holding handsYou encouraged me a couple years ago, the summer before my son Liam was starting kindergarten. Your encouragement gave me the strength and verbiage to advocate to the IEP team for him to spend 60% of his day in gen ed when they were recommending he spend 100% of his day in the medically fragile classroom. Anyway, it’s going really well for him, and he has a few sweet friends that he met because he’s mainstreamed. The picture I sent you is his sweet friend Keir, holding hands with him. This friendship would not have developed if he was hidden in the ISC. That time you spent with me changed the course of my son’s school experience. You’re AWESOME! I’m grateful.

As they say, “But wait! There’s more!”

In her email, Rae Lyn added as an afterthought, “Tamsan, [Keir’s mom], also wrote a letter to Liam’s IEP team about Keir and Liam’s friendship, if you want to read it. We were still making our case with the IEP team to allow Liam in gen ed. His inclusion was on a trial basis, so I really wanted to emphasis the importance of inclusion for everyone. Tamsan was willing to write about the profound effect Liam had on Keir!”

Of course, I was interested in reading it! And that was when my Wednesday morning became fascinating. It’s one thing to read about inclusion data – it’s quite another to actually SEE the impact one child can make on another. Tamsan wrote:

My daughter Keir is Liam’s classmate. As soon as school started, she was talking to me about Liam in great detail. Just last night she told me that when she first saw him she thought the reason he didn’t talk was because he was shy, and that she initially believed he was sitting in some kind of stroller because she hadn’t known anyone that uses a wheelchair before. She did not see disabled, she saw Liam.

If we drove past a park and she saw a swing suitable for Liam, she would get so excited and let me know that he could swing there if he wanted to. Liam means so much to her. My little girl would tell me as soon as I picked her up from school if he was absent, and my husband has a habit of asking her how Liam was doing on any given day; it’s a family thing. She was eager to tell me all about how his parents came in and explained to the class why he’s in a wheelchair and doesn’t speak so I could better understand him.

One of her greatest dreams came true when we were invited to his house to play. Initially, Keir had several questions about how they could play, and his amazing Mom taught her how to communicate with him and shared ways they could play together. As soon as we left the playdate, she was ready for another.

Keir will be the first person to tell you that “Liam is perfect the way he is.” She’s only five, and can lead her peers by loving example how to really include, have compassion for, better understand, and become true friends with a child of any kind of different ability than what is typical. All of this thanks to her friendship with Liam.

a little boy and a little girl holding hands while sittingWe feel so honored to be included in Liam’s life. I personally think about this child several times a day – he’s got a hold on my heart as well! I am grateful beyond words that Keir and Liam just so happened to land in the same Kindergarten class. Keir is a loving and compassionate child, but her friendship with Liam has opened her eyes and her sweet heart at the age of five even more than her Dad and I could have dreamed. We feel so incredibly fortunate that Keir has been given the opportunity at such a young age to have Liam as a classmate and friend. If it weren’t for Liam being included in their general education class, these two would have never met, this friendship would not have formed, and one very bright, compassionate, incredible little girl would have missed out on this equally incredible little boy. As a parent to a child without disabilities, knowing Liam has dramatically opened my eyes and my heart to disabled people and their families.

Changing perceptions and attitudes about disability CAN happen – it happens all the time! It just takes time: time spent connecting with others, educating ourselves about how systems work, and advocating on behalf of ourselves or a loved one. FACT Oregon changed its mission recently, because we see the inherent need to focus on disability awareness. Kudos to Liam’s family, and a special shout out to Keir’s family for their awareness work! We can all be a part of the disability rights movement together.