True Inclusion: It’s More Than You Think

Inclusion Thinking Parents

Here at The Noah Robert Project we are asking and searching for what inclusion means to you. Today's guest blogger shares her insight as a special needs parent and inclusion advocate.

True Inclusion: It’s More Than You Think

by: Stacey Cheney

Inclusion. It’s a trending topic lately, and that’s a good thing. I’m inspired by the fact that it’s getting the attention it deserves. That people are seeing its value. That it’s not a nice thing to do, but a necessary one.

But what does inclusion – whether in the classroom, social programs, or in the world of employment – actually look like? That’s where there still seems to be some struggle.  As a mom of a kiddo with special needs, I’ve seen both sides: true inclusion and what I call pseudo-inclusion, which often gets mistaken for inclusion.

I once experienced this pseudo-inclusion at an open house for my son’s class. You know, those events they have a month into the school year, where the teachers tell you all the great plans they have for the year ahead. My son was in a general education classroom, with a special education teacher pushing in and pulling him out of class as necessary. In theory, he was working and learning alongside his “typical” peers as much as possible. In theory, this was inclusion.

As I walked toward his room, displays of the work his class had done lined the walls. I looked eagerly for my son’s name … but it wasn’t there. OK, I thought, not a good feeling, but perhaps there’s more in the classroom.

In the classroom, a slideshow was running, showing picture after picture of smiling students, working together, playing together, making silly faces together.  And I kept waiting for my son’s smiling face … and I waited … and waited … and waited.

But there wasn’t a picture of my son. Not one. And I felt a lump rise into my throat. You see, to me, in that room that night, it felt as though my son didn’t exist. There was no evidence of him being a part of the class. No projects on the wall, no photos, nothing. And if I, a person who knew him, who loved him, who was looking for him, felt like he didn’t exist – how did he appear to his classmates? How did he see himself?

Unfortunately, this story is not unique for special needs parents. And I think the problem is the fact that there’s an important distinction that is often missed: Inclusion is not the same as including.  By extension, it’s not the mere act of not excluding.

When I call a summer camp to ask them if their program is inclusive, and they tell me “yes, we’ve had several children with special needs attend” – that doesn’t tell me they’re inclusive. Yes, I’m glad you’re telling me he’s welcome. But I need you to tell me he belongs.

And that’s at the heart of inclusion: recognizing that our children with special needs are more than a disability to be accommodated; they are unique individuals with something valuable to contribute. Truly inclusive programs give them the same opportunities as anyone else to do so.

So what does that look like? Well, to me, it takes many forms.

Sometimes it’s … mainstreaming.

All of this is not to say that I think mainstreaming can’t be inclusive. When it’s done right, it’s one of the most valuable tools we’ve got for inclusion! A mainstreamed program that puts people with disabilities and without side by side – in a classroom, camp, job, or otherwise – requires a concerted effort be made to engage everyone; capitalize on their strengths and accommodate for their challenges. That might mean taking extra time to help a person who struggles socially to interact. It could also mean taking the time to educate someone who isn’t struggling socially about why others might; how others are different, why it’s OK, and what they can do to connect with them, even if it’s in a different way.

Sometimes it’s … not mainstreaming.

Programs designed specifically for people with disabilities – even if they don’t include non-disabled peers – can also be inclusive. That’s because they are giving people opportunities they may not have otherwise – “typical” experiences, which can provide an authentic sense of belonging. My son is on a special needs baseball team. And while he’s not playing alongside his typically performing peers, the program gives him the opportunity to do something kids his age should ALL have the opportunity to do if they want it. It has given him friends, a sense of pride and accomplishment, and of course, fun.

The author’s son, feeling accomplished after receiving the “game ball” for his hard work.

The author’s son, feeling accomplished after receiving the “game ball” for his hard work.

Sometimes it’s … special instruction.

Another great example of inclusion is instruction and methodologies that are aimed to teach skills that can promote inclusion when applied outside the instructional setting. My son takes adaptive swim lesson through a tremendous program that was designed by physical and occupational therapists. It’s teaching him to swim in a way that works for him. Consider the sense of belonging that this can provide when he’s invited to pool parties or to a friend’s house for a swim. Just another example of inclusion.

The author’s son, taking adaptive swim lessons after years of “regular” swim lessons that didn’t teach the way he learned.

The author’s son, taking adaptive swim lessons after years of “typical” swim lessons that didn’t teach the way he learned.

Sometimes it’s … about the families.

One thing that I think gets lost a lot when we talk about inclusion is the family. Families of people with disabilities can often feel quite isolated;  our worlds are often filled with therapies, appointments and programs that others may not “get.” Inclusive programs acknowledge this experience and either connect parents or foster better understandings of our diverse parenting experiences.  

I think when all is said and done, there is no one right way to do inclusion. What’s key, however, is that we take this moment in history – when inclusion is trending the way that it is – and use it to go beyond creating truly inclusive programs and create a truly inclusive world.

About the Author:
Stacey Cheney is the mom of two amazing kiddos, who have both taught her more than she ever knew she had to learn. She is a writer living in the Atlanta, GA area, and together with her husband, she co-founded The Guide Project Inc., an organization devoted to finding and creating opportunities for inclusion for people with disabilities and their families. To join them in becoming Inclusion Champions, or to find out about their upcoming documentary screening focused on inclusion, visit them at, or give them a like on Facebook at


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  • Mary Podesva on

    We have come a long way working on inclusion. Ihave learned that true inclusion is only as good as the community you are in. I have worked with individuals with specific needs since 1983. Truly in that time we have done a great job improving the lives of people who have developmental disabilities.

    I also have a daughter with special needs. In many places in our community she is trwated like a queen. Campgrounds are her best social outlet. Where ever we go she is the star of the weekend. I also remember a time during whic as a manager of a group home, that the men were included in a local church. But that is because we didn’t give up. Every week we showed up and sat right up front. Within a few months the congregation began to greet them all by first name. Even asked where they are when they didn’t come to church.

    So i think we just have to keep working at it!

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