By Abigail Braithwaite
Beginning this month, a group of parents and caregivers will meet monthly for an intensive training series on the nuts and bolts of preparing for an inclusive kindergarten placement for our children. The NWDSA is excited to offer this project to empower families to advocate for children with disabilities to be educated in general education classrooms. Seed money for this year’s pilot project was provided by the generous donation from the Tee Up for Down Syndrome golf tournament, held on October 11, 2010, in memory of Bill Fallis.
The idea for the Kindergarten Inclusion Cohort grew out of the All Born (In) Cross-Disability Inclusion Conference, and the need to offer parents more resources, training and opportunities to connect the other 364 days of the year. There is a lot of work that goes into the process of kindergarten transition, writing IEP goals, and supporting schools in the implementation of those goals. While it is true that schools are required to provide a quality education in the least restrictive environment to all students, it is also true that there is a lot that a parent can and must do to ensure that their child’s needs are being met. All parents need to be active participants in the process, picking up their responsibility to work with the teachers to ensure the most success for their children.
In addition to providing skills and resources to individual families, the goal of the cohort is to provide participating families with a community of people to support them throughout the process of the transition to kindergarten and beyond. Through sharing experiences, successes and struggles, attending each other’s IEP meetings, and traveling alongside one another on the journey, each participant will have the opportunity to forge strong relationships with other committed advocates. We are standing on the shoulders of parents and advocates who have come before us as we do this work; by sharing history and building community, we can help to combat the isolation that often hits families of children with disabilities particularly hard.
Inclusion is not just an education issue. It is a philosophy of life the extends into all areas of life, and at it’s heart it is about the civil rights of all citizens to access our community fully, and to give back as contributing members of society.
In the spring of 2007 David and I attended our first All Born (In) conference with Adara in tow. She was just nine months old, and I have to confess that we were not exactly sure what we were doing there. We had heard the term “inclusion” tossed around since we started attending NWDSA events, but it seemed like a far-off school thing, and we weren’t sure how it pertained to being the parents of a sweet and tiny baby. But we made it through the conference day, and learned a lot despite our initial misgivings.
It turns out that for parents of a tiny baby, inclusion was the way we lived our daily life. Inclusion was a family meal, a library story hour or a trip to the grocery store. Inclusion was a crowd of cousins swooning over the newest inductee into the mischief squad at a family wedding, or calling a babysitter so we could go out to dinner as grown-ups once in a while. Inclusion was easy, and it came quite naturally to our little family.
As Adara grew up, she became ready for life outside the family nest, and we found a place for her in a local Montessori school where inclusion was learning to walk so that she could play on the big hill at recess, learning to share toys and lessons in the classroom and participating in field trips and classroom parties. Inclusion became a little more complicated as we left the cozy confines of Early Intervention and wrote our first IEP when she was not quite three. But is was still natural and right, and we felt strong in our commitment to help Adara build an inclusive resume for herself as we moved toward the big day when it was time to help her transition into kindergarten.
And that day always seemed so far away that I find it more than a little surprising that we have arrived at the point where kindergarten is on the horizon. As a volunteer for the NWDSA for the past three years, I have been fortunate to receive an informal immersion into inclusion. But as we ready ourselves for the transition to full time school, I know that we have a lot left to learn, and David and I are tremendously excited for the opportunity to participate in the first K-inclusion cohort. We started dreaming about this moment four years ago, when we embraced the concept that our daughter has the right to full inclusion in her world. And now we are preparing ourselves for the hard work necessary to bring that dream into a reality.