1. I presented our story
I was fortunate to be asked to speak last March at a Parent Partnership Group at our school on the topic of What Inclusion Means to Me. It was the first time that I stood up to speak to other parents and teachers about how it feels to have a child with differences. I tried to be honest and authentic. I public speak for a living, but still, I was SO nervous.
Not everybody liked what I had to say. I had a heckler at the back, a mom who felt that kids like mine took away from her kids' time with their teachers. That was challenging. But at least I had the opportunity to share my story with a larger group. I started to become more visible, at least to the small audience at the meeting.
2. I reached out to other parents who had kids with differences
The Assistant Principal who asked me to speak on inclusion started to informally introduce me in the hallway to other moms who have kids with differences. My son Aaron is the only kid in the school who has a visible disability. In a setting of 900 children, it's impossible to identify who's the parent of a kid with autism or an invisible disability without some assistance. Turns out there are 27 students who have support in the classroom. I wasn’t alone!
3. We began a Family Inclusion Group
I discovered that I wasn’t the only one struggling with IPPs and calls from the school! Five of us moms started talking to each other in the playground about starting an inclusion group in partnership with the school. This would be a group of families with kids with diverse learning needs and anybody else interested in inclusion and building a compassionate school community. Some people in our disability community were not supportive of our inclusion group, and accused me of starting a segregated group, but I ignored them and soldiered on. We had to start somewhere.
We started to meet for coffee at our local recreation centre. We met with the school's new Assistant Principal to plan a formal meeting. We only had four parents attend the first meeting, but our school trustee showed up! This was exciting to us. We wrote a Terms of Reference, and worked hard to partner with the school. As an added bonus, a mom joined our planning group who has typically developing kids, but who really believes in supporting us. That almost made me weep. We are not alone, even in our wider community. People do care about our kids. We just have to be given opportunities to find them.
4. We had regular coffee meetings
5. We started representing at Parent Council
We committed to showing up at every Parent Council meeting. Even better, we have a standing agenda item to give an update about what we're doing. The first time we had to present to this bigger parent group I was quaking in my boots. What was interesting is that the other parents said they wanted to know how to talk to their children about our kids and differences. They said they didn't know where to start. At the last meeting we shared an essay I wrote with some tips: How to be part of Aaron’s village. I haven't noticed a difference in how parents interact with me. However, last month as Aaron was walking to school one of the Parent Council moms shouted out to him: "HI AARON." This seemingly minor happening is a major breakthrough for us.
6. I volunteered for more field trips and Hot Lunch
If I want other parents to accept Aaron and me, I have to do my part to be more visible. So I’ve made an effort to volunteer more at the school. That way at least the kids in his class get to know me as Aaron’s mom. I’m a true introvert, and volunteering for Hot Lunch with the other moms is a BIG stretch for me, but my first shift is in January. Wish me luck.
In December I met some of the moms from our inclusion group at a local fancy restaurant for a holiday lunch. We talked about things other than school, like where we went to university, our Christmas traditions, our other kids. We are getting to know each other as people, too, not just as "special needs" moms. At the end, we all gave each other a hug goodbye.
I wish that the world was accepting of my son and our family, but that’s not our reality. I know from my paid work life that good change management strategy means that you celebrate the 20 per cent of people who get it (our inclusion group), and focus on the 60 per cent who are neutral or not engaged (like our Parent Council). The other 20 per cent, who don’t get us, like the heckler at my presentation? Forget about them. They aren’t worth your time or energy (Believe me, this is a tough lesson to learn, and I certainly don’t practise this philosophy every day).
Because of our inclusion group, us moms are not alone. We greet each other in the hall. We no longer stand separately in the playground after school. We have found each other. We vow not to exclude others as they have excluded us. We are open to anybody who wants to join us. We listen to each other, root for each other, and our kids are slowly getting to know each other too. This is awesome. Aaron now knows the names of the inclusion moms' kids, and they greet each other and high-five in the hall. He’s building his own community too.
Even when things aren’t okay, they will be okay because we have found each other. Here’s to building safe spaces, like BLOOM, where we can support each other and share information. I truly believe in my heart that together we are stronger.