Feature Article - January 2013
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Programming: Inclusiveness

Mission Possible
Programming Inclusion for Hidden Disabilities

By Kelli Anderson

No Child Left Behind

Unfortunately, roadblocks remain—both imagined and real—including misinformation about inclusion that misleads many to believe that successful implementation is impossible, too difficult or maybe even harmful as a result of bad experiences when inclusion was attempted without proper training. Thankfully, with the help of special needs organizations, conferences, seminars, networking sites and some common sense, stories like Ethan's are demonstrating that the impossible is possible after all.

Contrary to what many might think, inclusion doesn't start with a budget, a facility overhaul, consultants or even staff training. It starts with a commitment to a vision that no child, regardless of ability, should be segregated or left behind.

"I think that the real roadblock for most people starts with an attitude that says, 'I can't do this; it's too hard,'" said Aron Hall, director of programs with The National Inclusion Project, "or an attitude that says, 'These kids need something different that my program can't provide, so we need a different, separate program.' You can change your facility to the most amazing ADA facility of all time, but if you don't have the right mindset first, that's only going to go so far."

In the past few years our understanding of the disabled community has broadened to include those we wouldn't ordinarily recognize at first glance as needing any special help or accommodation: those with hidden disabilities.

According to Hall, the mindset behind successful inclusion comes down to three things: the unwavering belief that every child can make a friend, every child can participate, and every child can be successful. Once that vision is in place, creativity and a willingness to think outside the box will naturally follow in an attempt to figure out how to help every child be successful because those in charge will not be satisfied with a scenario where a child is left standing apart.

The Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, Minn., attributes decades of inclusion success to the fact that a vision of inclusion is factored into every day-to-day decision made. "That's what happened in this building 27 years ago," explained Alyssa Golob, director of youth and family services. "It's about being really committed to the belief that any kid can be a part of what every 8-year-old does, and it's in the beginning of our mission statement. We're walking the talk, and we look at it in every committee, and all decisions are based on that mission."

Inclusion Includes All Staff

According to Golob, that kind of walking the talk only happens when you hire staff members, regardless of position or job title, who share in that vision as well. Hall agreed, adding that managers need to incorporate their inclusion philosophy within the interview questions so that when they hire, they hire those who share their vision, making it easier to equip them.

But that doesn't mean every staff person has to be a special needs expert. It means looking for a certain attitude. "I don't always hire people with special needs experience, but they have to be caring, patient and have a spark in the eye," said Heather Andersen, inclusion manager of the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association (FVSRA) in Aurora, Ill.

In fact, a misconception many facilities fall prey to is the belief that inclusion is only the responsibility of one or two experts or of a single department. Just as its name implies, inclusion is a mindset that must literally include every employee. "One common mistake is assuming that the expert, or whoever is assigned to coordinate inclusion services, can solve all the problems," said Carly Schmidt, CTRS, inclusion coordinator with the City of Eugene Recreation Services in Eugene, Ore. "It's important to have each service area have ownership of inclusion in their own programs and understand that a solution most often will come from a collaboration within the service area. The inclusion coordinator can ensure continued accountability, but each program area is mostly responsible for their own inclusion."