What Is Inclusion?

By the time I was graduating from Rutgers University, I had a great understanding of the need to be my own advocate. I was successful at talking to my professors about having Cerebral Palsy. I talked to them about the accommodations I needed in order to gain an equal opportunity to do well in their respective classes. For the most part, my instructors were understanding to my needs and adhered to my need for accommodations, until I was confronted with an English Literature Professor. I didn’t even get to the talking point of my reasonable accommodations when the instructor expressed to me how she didn’t have a “problem” with me being in her class, but if I spoke in class and she couldn’t understand me, she would ignore my comments and/or questions. “I will just pass you by,” the teacher went on to say. I, in return, asked, “Why can’t you just ask me to repeat myself?” The professor proceeded to respond by indicating that she couldn’t sacrifice the “momentum” of the class by asking me to repeat myself. I was instantly confused and speechless, at least initially. But most of all, the feeling of being excluded took over my entire body and mind.

It seems as if the community of people who experience disabilities and their supporters have been advocating for inclusion for ages. Just when we think we have conquered inclusion in one realm of society, another challenge rises that poses a huge threat to our ability to be included. When we observe the history of disability in this country, the fight for inclusion has been a long and complicated journey. The initial fight was for the chance at life. The 1930’s movement for eugenics was meant to be accepted as a practice within the medical and scientific fields. This posed a threat to those born differently and specifically those born with what was presumed to be “undesirable traits.” After the eugenics and sterilization movements were tabled, the institutionalization of people who experienced disabilities was the answer for many who saw this community as a problem. And for years, the policies and practices of dealing with people who experience disabilities has been that of handling a problem and not of inclusion and human rights.

I can go on about how the fight for inclusion has been woven into so many realms of society. We have fought for how we are educated, where and how we live, how we navigate our communities, our right to vote and how we gain employment opportunities, just to name a few. We can credit the 1960’s Disability Rights Movement for exposing the world to how much work was needed, and how advocacy was the golden ticket to push and move forward the agenda for inclusion. But what I most credit the Disability Rights Movement with is exposing that inclusion is about accessibility to opportunity more than anything else.

Accessibility to opportunities will always be the great equalizer. It can keep any community from being included, especially communities that are historically marginalized and oppressed. One of the most memorable acts of the Disability Rights Movement was when people who experienced disabilities got out of their wheelchairs and dropped the use of their crutches to crawl on the Capitol. The 1990’s “Capitol Crawl” was a protest that demonstrated the social barriers that people who experienced disabilities faced on a day to day basis. According to some accounts, as many as 82 advocates struggled to climb the steps on their hands and knees in order to show the incredible need for the inclusion of people who experienced disabilities. Yes, they wanted to be treated the way all people who are the targets of discrimination and segregation want to be treated, and that is as humans. Above all, the “Capitol Crawl” showcased how much the world was not accessible and lacked opportunity for those who experienced disabilities. It also put on display that we are people who want and deserve full lives like everyone else.

Nowadays, many may believe that state services rendered through state agencies is the ultimate way to access opportunities. Indeed, it is important for people to connect to such services and supports as a gateway to be included. It is simply crucial, and for so many people that’s where opportunity dwells. However, that is not the ultimate path that leads us to the end goal. The Disability Rights Movement gave us a head start on the fight for inclusion and woke up the world to the importance that no decision should be made “for us, without us.” However, advocates such as Ed Roberts weren’t advocating for services for people who experienced disability so that we could be simply included. They were advocating for us to be included as human beings. The ability to obtain services, education, employment, the right to vote, and the ability to navigate our communities were, and still are, the avenues that people need to access inclusivity. What really counts is how we are treated as people once we take such avenues. In my view, what is needed for all people, and specifically people who experience disabilities, is access coupled with respect. It is my hope that we continue to push and crawl, if needed, for society to gain a new perspective on what it means to be a person who experiences a disability which is ultimately human.