Our Take on Inclusion

This week, we are sharing a story that showcases a different type of inclusion. At Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, Debra Jenkins started a program for children with disabilities. At her program, the children build relationships with teens who are trained to teach them dance. Though this does not follow KIT’s traditional model of inclusion, Debra shares a beautiful story showing that any type of inclusion benefits the people involved. 

In 2008, I started an arts education program for people with special needs at the non-profit organization my husband, Alan, and I co-founded. As I was formulating this program, “experts” repeatedly told me that parents would not be enthusiastic about my program because it didn’t follow the traditional model for inclusion. Rather than being paired in a setting with their typical peers, my students are paired with trained teenage volunteers who provide whatever level of assistance each student requires in order to fully participate in the activity at hand.

jenkins5As I got to know the parents of our first 10 students, I asked them what inclusion meant to them. They all expressed the view that inclusion has more to do with being given access to mainstream activities and less to do with being in a setting where everyone is the same age.

My favorite story to illustrate our version of inclusion involves the theatre department at a local private school and the 15 adults with special needs who attend an afternoon session of our day habilitation program. The school’s theatre director called me last fall. We’ve known each other for years so I was baffled by the awkward and hesitant way she was beating around the bush about the reason for her call.

She finally said, “I need to ask you something but I’m not sure how to ask it in a politically correct way.”

“You won’t offend me as long as you don’t use the ‘R’ word!” I assured her.

“I’m directing my students in a production of The Boys Next Door in the spring and have four teenage boys who need to spend time around men with special needs so they can understand how to portray them. Do you have a program we could come to so my actors can observe adults with special needs?”

The Boys Next Door is a well-known play that centers around four men with intellectual disabilities who live in a group home. I was excited that one of our high schools would tackle the material and because I know the director so well, I was confident that the young actors would be coached to present adults with disabilities with respect and not as stereotypes.

We agreed that all of her theatre students needed to be comfortable with the subject matter, not just the featured actors, so we decided that she would check her theatre students out of school at 2 p.m., and spend three hours with the adults in our Wednesday afternoon session for a six-week grading period.

The first session the theatre class attended was … well, it was uncomfortable. The twelve students, typical 15-18-year-olds, hung back, watched and listened but were reluctant to engage with the adults. And the adults wanted to know why these teenagers had shown up to watch them. But as the weeks went by, things began to change.

jenkins7Gradually, the teens started participating in the activities our adults were doing … painting, creative writing, music therapy, yoga … and as they engaged in these activities, conversations started developing and shared interests were discovered. It didn’t take long for the teens and adults to work their way through the awkward phase that comes with putting two seemingly disparate groups of people together and suddenly, friendships started to form.

At the end of the teens’ six-week grading period, their director told me the teens didn’t want to end their weekly visits and we agreed they would continue coming as a group through the end of the play’s production. Week after week, typical teenagers spent three hours with adults with disabilities and week after week, their bonds grew stronger.

And then, really cool things started happening…

jenkins4One of the teenage girls and her mother hosted the women in their home for a Sunday afternoon of pampering, complete with local hair dressers and make-up artists donating their time and services. Several of the boys in the class started making weekly visits to the group home where six of the men in our program live, bringing fried chicken and playing 3-card poker together. Three of the girls have a standing date once a month with three of the women – an afternoon of shopping and eating out that the six of them eagerly anticipate. And best of all, several of the boys in the class also play football. When they told their football coach about their new friend, a young man with an uncanny ability to track college football players’ statistics, the coach offered the young man a job as the Assistant Team Manager and arranged transportation for him from his group home to the school every afternoon for football practice and every Friday night for their games.

jenkins6This particular private school has a reputation for rigorous academic standards and prides itself on grooming students for the Ivy League. This school does not have one single student with special needs in its population. And yet, there are 15 adults with special needs who are now considered part of this school’s family, who are invited to its pep rallies and choir concerts, its dances and celebrations and who are welcomed with open arms by the students, faculty and administrators. This may not look like the traditional model of inclusion, but it is bringing the same benefits of inclusion to everyone involved.

Those theatre students caught on quickly to the benefits of inclusion. They understood that diversity is about more than just race, gender or ethnicity. They recognized that spending time with people who have special needs was offering them a different perspective on what it means to be “normal” and have adopted Merrimack Hall’s slogan … “Normal is a dryer setting.”

jenkins8When one of their classmates committed suicide last year, they found great solace in the comfort they received from their friends with special needs. When they receive their college acceptance letters or make an “A” on a test, they want to share the good news of their achievements with their new mentors. When they have a bad day at school, they have a new group of adults to turn to for help in dealing with their teenage angst.

One of the adults told me, “I like my new teenage friends. They are silly and full of energy and make me feel younger.” Another said, “It’s good to have young folks who listen to my advice.” And the best, “I don’t feel so alone anymore. Those kids need me.”

jenkins1Whatever the setting and however it looks, inclusion enriches the lives of everyone involved. I’ve come to believe that the greatest benefits of inclusion come to us typically developing folks. Ask any of the hundreds of teenagers who have come through our program since 2008 and they will tell you … becoming involved in the lives of our students has made them better people. They have a deeper understanding of what it truly means to accept others for who they are, not for what they look like or how they speak or what they do for a living. Aside from my family, I personally value the relationships I have with people with special needs – of all ages – more than any other relationships in my life.

–Written by Debra Jenkins, co-founder of Merrimack Hall’s Johnny Stallings Arts Program

Debra Jenkins is the co-founder of Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Merrimack Hall’s Johnny Stallings Arts Program serves more than 500 children, teens and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities through arts and cultural programs, weekly classes, summer camps and special events. To learn more, read her blog at www.dreamingwithyourfeet.com.

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