When Pathways for Exceptional Children was founded in 2002, there was no question that our mission was inclusion. We were a group of mothers that had children with special needs and our hearts were committed to changing the world to be more inclusive. The first place we began was to start after-school programs that were inclusive to all children. However, we quickly hit a road block. Every time we ran a class, 100% of the children attending remained children with disabilities. We constantly wracked our brains trying to figure out what we were doing wrong. Through much trial and error, we began to slowly realize that we had created our own barriers to facilitating the inclusion we were looking for.
Are you clear about what you want?
The first issue was bought to our attention by a high school student who did not have disabilities. She volunteered as a mentor for the children in our programs. We had done some trainings for the youth in our community and placed a huge emphasis on inclusion. This mentor approached me and asked, “If we wanted to be inclusive, why did our mission statement only talk about children with disabilities?” She ask me, "Where do I fit in?" It had never occurred to us that the label of “disability” might cause a problem in our mission statement. Was this label doing more to include or exclude us?
Are you willing to experiment and change?
We took the mentor’s questions to heart. We began to experiment by changing our messaging to “children of all abilities.” Over time, our programs became more inclusive. We had never realized the power of a label. We were getting exactly what we were asking for by using the label “disability” in our mission statement and our marketing. We did not realize this served as a barrier to the inclusion we all wanted. Other people had mistakenly interpreted from our mission, that children without disabilities could not attend our programs. We had to think about what we wanted and use language that opened the doors to everyone to participate and feel included in our cause.
Does your messaging align with your cause?
Take a close look at the words and language you use. Are you using labels and words that are clear and in alignment with your cause. We had to take a close look at what we wanted. Did we truly want to be included? If we wanted inclusion, we had to drop the labels and language that did not promote inclusion. In my book, “Include ME!” I repeatedly say, “If you want to be included, you have to become more inclusive.” Take a close look at your messaging. Evaluate your vision and mission statements. How do you describe your programs and services? What types of pictures and videos do you use? What we began to see was that our message was more about disability than inclusion. We had to change the way we thought and actively invite everyone to become a part of the process of working toward inclusion.
After realizing the barriers we had inadvertently created, we began to realize that the labels we had become so accustomed to using were one sided and exclusive. They actually kept people away from joining us. Once we got rid of the labels and opened the doors to children of all abilities, the magic of inclusion began to happen. Today 65%-70% of the children enrolling in our after-school programs do not have disabilities. There is not a day that goes by that we are not advocating for our children with special needs to be included. However, we changed our approach. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it beautifully, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” That is what we did. We simply changed our strategy to becoming clear and aligned to what we wanted. We put everything toward becoming inclusive, and over time, others began to join us!
Please share below how you are working to lead others to join your cause and what you have learned in your journey toward inclusion! See the training video above or if you prefer podcast click here.
BUY INCLUDE ME!
All proceeds from the Include ME! book and donations will go toward our mission of promoting inclusion. Click below to purchase the book.