I’ve been agonizing over preparing a presentation all week. For creating a talk is like crafting a story – it is carefully pieced together to engage the audience early on, to create a safe space for listening, to allow them to feel. This is trickier than you might think. I say this from hard-fought experience of crashing and burning onstage – misreading your audience is the absolutely worst thing you can do when you are behind a podium. I live in fear of it. This is a hell of a way to make a living.
I was asked to speak to all the teachers at my son’s high school about What Inclusion Means to Me. There would be about one hundred educators in the audience on their Pro-D day. I sweated out my approach, talking to the teacher in the Access Program (Burnaby’s special ed) who had kindly recommended me, the physics teacher who was the organizer, and many families who had kids with differences in schools across the provinces. I was desperate to understand my audience, to not misstep, to represent other families well, for I had a lot of skin in the game. This is the high school where Aaron would be for the next six years. I could not screw this up.
I had spoken once before to a teacher/parent audience on this same subject, almost three years ago in Alberta. My stumble then was not to include any research about the other kids in the school – the ‘typically developing’ kids, many of whom were travelling on a strong academic path. One mom had angrily protested from the back of the room: your kid is taking away from my kid’s teaching time! I have recognized over the years that it is crucial to address barriers and concerns that the audience is holding early on in the presentation, for if you don’t, they hang onto those concerns during the entire talk, and this is a barrier to the listening.
This time I was more grizzled and wiser (but alas, still not perfect – is there really such a thing?). I drew upon others for expertise in my talk. I don’t know one thing about adapting or modifying curriculum, so I showed Shelley Moore’s great bowling video. I leaned on Ian Brown’s wisdom about the value of people with disabilities. The moms from my Family Inclusion Group Facebook page kindly offered up some wonderful quotes about our kids being brave, and presuming competence. I remembered the young man, Ryan, who has autism and graduated with my daughter three years ago, and read that little essay. Two local family leaders, Karen Copeland and Suzanne Perrault, helped me immensely with pep talks and information. I was very aware of not being self-serving – not only concerning myself with my own son’s experience, but with his colleagues’ experiences, too: those who used wheelchairs, those who were non-verbal, those identified with ‘behaviour’ challenges. I had many people behind me in spirit for this extraordinary opportunity: for a mom taking up a morning in a high school’s Pro-D day is a rare sight indeed.
And what does inclusion mean to me? In the end, I talked about our journey with Aaron – from when he was first diagnosed (the baby we expected was not the baby we got) to my struggles with my own fears about people with disabilities when Aaron was born, embedded in my head from my junior high days in 1974 (if you are going to have a stereotype, at least have an up-to-date stereotype). I acknowledged the good work teachers do – how busy and exhausted they are too, and asked them to reflect on their why – why they chose teaching. I talked about how inclusion was so much more than academic inclusion inside a classroom, how it was about inclusion in the hallways, at lunchtime, at school events, in sports, in extra-curricular activities. I invited the audience to think of one way educators and the other students could include the kids from the Access Program in the school, no matter how simple: learning the kids’ names, giving high fives, starting up a Buddy program, picking one thing from their class lesson to teach them each day.
My goodness, as I write this out, I realized I covered a lot of ground. I’d had better practice what I preach about presentations, and that is: Identify your intention. Pick three key messages. Know thy audience.
My intention was to touch hearts to change minds. My key messages were about the value of children with disabilities (the disabled do the work of love, says Ian Brown), expanding the definition of diversity to include different abilities, and to point out how we are not preparing the high-achieving students for the real world if they do not know people who are ‘the other.’
I had to pause a few times during the talk to catch myself from crying. This topic is deeply personal to me, as Aaron’s school experience is everything to us. We chose to live in Burnaby based on the school district. We bought a condo close to the school. I resigned from my job to be more visible and available to support his school experience.
Scanning the audience, I knew others were crying too. Maybe they had someone with a difference in their family. Maybe they were remembering the feeling of being left out. Maybe they were triggered to recall why they chose teaching. At the end, the applause was more than polite, and I had a patient line of teachers waiting to chat with me. It tears me up to think about how much these educators want to reach all children, but sometimes they just don’t know how. This desire is everything. Change happens with just one step at a time – the first step is the most important one. This is the beginning of belonging, one high five at a time.
Inclusion to me means finding love + belonging. It means taking the time to understand another person’s perspective, to feel empathy, to demonstrate compassion. These are the exact same messages I share with health care audiences, as I’ve realized that these concepts are deeply universal.
In the end, for me, everything always circles back to Raymond Carver:
Beloved on this earth. That’s what I want for my children, for myself, and for you too. xo.