Fair Doesn’t Have to Mean Equal

This post was originally posted on the Autism Society of North Carolina (ASNC)’s blog. Thanks to Bobbi Wells for allowing us to share her writing! We often discuss techniques for explaining accommodations to kids who think things may be “unfair.” This piece explains so much!

In a world where it seems to be politically correct to treat everyone the same and give everyone the same privileges, we often miss the opportunity to teach our kids (typical and not typical) a very important lesson: Life isn’t fair. And more importantly, fair doesn’t mean equal!

I believe it is far better to teach kids this lesson early on than to discover down the road that you have raised a self-centered child who believes he/she is entitled, or to have your child go through life thoroughly disappointed and angry because life isn’t fair! As a parent of a child with autism in elementary school, I find myself repeating the mantra “fair doesn’t mean equal” far too often.

It reminds me of a time when my son was in second grade and I was called in for a conference because he would not stop whistling during class. He had recently acquired this skill and was putting it to good use, to his teacher’s dismay. I suggested the teacher give him a lollipop, or a piece of gum, or even a Life Saver, to which she replied, “But that wouldn’t be FAIR to the other kids!”

As my hair stood up on end and I felt my head spin around and my eyes bulge out, I politely said in my kindest voice, “Well, it just doesn’t seem ‘fair’ that my son was born with autism either, does it? What better way to welcome these kids to the real world, where life isn’t fair! So tell me, in all fairness, would it be so bad to offer the other kids a small treat, too? They, too, might just benefit from some sensory therapy and oral stimuli!”

Well, she reluctantly agreed to go with the “discreet” Life Saver and what do you know, like magic … no more whistling!

John Thomas, a former training consultant for ASNC, told a brilliant story at the 2013 annual conference, illustrating “fair doesn’t mean equal”: A teacher took three children out of the classroom and told them to return one by one. The first child was told to come in with an imaginary cut on his finger. The second child was told to come in with an imaginary stomachache, and the third child was told to come in complaining about an imaginary headache. When the first child entered, the teacher offered him ointment and a bandage for his imaginary cut. Next, the second child came in complaining of an imaginary stomachache, and the teacher gave the child the same thing, some ointment and a bandage, and told him to go sit down. The bewildered child took the items and went back to his seat. Finally, the third child entered complaining of an imaginary headache, and the teacher again gave the child some ointment and a bandage and told him to go to his seat.

Then the teacher asked the class, “So what’s wrong with this picture?” The class replied, “You gave ointment and a bandage to the children with a stomachache and a headache. That doesn’t make sense!”

“Well, I wanted to be fair,’” said the teacher, “and so I gave each of them the same thing. Isn’t that fair? What do you think I should have done?” The class replied, “Give the one with a stomachache some Pepto-Bismol and the one with a headache some aspirin, not a bandage!”

“Exactly,” replied the teacher. “I should have given each student exactly what they needed. They each had a problem, but the same solution didn’t work for each of them, did it? I was trying to be FAIR, but I didn’t help the ones who needed something more appropriate and specific for their problem, did I?”

“Therefore, class, fair doesn’t always mean equal, does it?”

Not only are those with autism and other disabilities different, but we are all different, and we all have different needs.

Just as someone needs caffeine to get them going in the morning, someone else might need to flap their hands to stay focused. Just as someone needs glasses to read, someone else might need to wiggle on an inflated cushy seat to read. Just as someone needs to doodle or daydream during a long lecture, someone else might need to stand and pace back and forth or take a quick break to get back on track.

Why not recognize and provide for those different needs as no big deal? If you think it’s no big deal, no one else will, either! If you don’t focus on it, no one else will, either! When we try to be fair, we miss the wonderful opportunity to teach our kids to celebrate their differences and to build acceptance of one another’s needs and differences!

–Written by Bobbi Wells, an Autism Resource Specialist and mother of a son with autism

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Introducing December’s Advo-KIT of the Month!

This week, we are celebrating the amazing advocacy of Susan Ratkovsky, the Director at Ellsworth Air Force Base Child Development Center in South Dakota. Read ahead for our interview with our Advo-KIT.

Dec2014AdvoKITPlease describe your current position and your experience working with children of all abilities.
I have been in the early childhood field for 20 years.  I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Early Childhood Education from the University of Wisconsin Stout and a Masters in Education from University of Phoenix.  I have been a part of both civilian and military programs as a classroom teacher, Training and Curriculum Specialist, Assistant Director, and Director.  I am also the president of Black Hills Association for the Education of Young Children in South Dakota.

What is your role in supporting inclusion?
I believe that inclusion is very important in early childhood programs to aid in the growth and development of all children.  Staff members deserve the training opportunities to give them the tools to work with all children.  I have made a promise to myself to never forget how challenging it is to work in a classroom every day, and I will always support my staff to continue their education and training.

What do you love about inclusion?
I love to watch children accept each other without judgments or biases. Children are open-minded people who accept each other’s differences and celebrate successes and achievements.

Why is inclusion important to you?
As early childhood educators, we need to be lifelong learners and risk-takers.  We need to be the advocates for children and families to help guide them through society.  The academic standards for young children are set high. I want to make certain we support those standards, but continue to focus on social/emotional development, too.  I work with amazing people who are committed to early childhood education and do their best to support military families.  When our program was selected to have an on-site visit with KIT, I embraced that opportunity to have all of the Child Development Center staff engage in face-to-face time with Mary Shea (a KIT trainer). They had the opportunity to ask questions, share experiences, and gain knowledge of all of the resources KIT provides for Air Force Programs.  I am so fortunate to work with a great team of professionals who are dedicated to children and families on Ellsworth AFB.

What is your top tip that you would give to someone working with children?
Be loving, nurturing, and kind to children. It is our responsibility to help them develop into respectful citizens.

–Written by Susan Rufi Ratkovsky, Child Development Center Director, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. Edited by KIT Staff.  Thank you so much for all that you do, Susan! 

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Including My Kids

This week, we are THRILLED to be sharing this heartwarming post by Katie Butts, author of Baseballs, Butterflies, and Blessings. Katie is the mom of two awesome kids who have different physical disabilities. Please enjoy her beautiful stories about the power of inclusion.

My four-year-old daughter takes a weekly dance class and loves it.   She loves the tutus and the hair bows and the twirling. She especially loves watching herself and her friends in the big mirrors. My daughter also happens to have arthrogryposis. This condition affects her joints and often causes a limited range of motion. Ellie knows she has something that causes her to fall a lot but has no idea that doctors once predicted she would be unable to do many of the things that bring her great joy today.

I really wanted Ellie to be able to participate in a dance class this year with her peers, but I knew she would sometimes need help moving into certain positions. Last week, Ellie came out of dance so happy because she got to be the “bacon.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was happy because she was happy, and we proceeded with our day. Later, when talking to her assistant, Sarah, she mentioned the bacon.

katiebutts2Apparently, in dance last week, the girls were all instructed to curl their bodies up like eggs. This is hard for my Ellie’s body to do. Sarah could have had Ellie sit to the side and watch all of the other eggs. She could have tried to force something that might have been painful for my daughter. She could have escorted Ellie out of the room for that song or made her sit on the side. She could have made it awkward or uncomfortable for Ellie or others. Sarah did none of those things. In that moment, Sarah had an opportunity to think fast and creatively and promote inclusion. Sarah announced that she and Ellie would be the bacon and would lie flat beside the eggs.

No wonder my daughter was so happy! Bacon is much better than eggs!! My heart was so full – not only at how this teenager thought so quickly and creatively but also at how happy my daughter was that she felt included.

katiebutts1I am the mom of two kids with differing physical conditions. My son, Will, is an amputee missing partial hands and both feet. He is 7 and attends a mainstream class in a private school. Despite not having full fingers or hands, he writes the most beautiful cursive. He plays tennis well and spends his afternoons chasing and playing with his sister and neighbor kids. To promote inclusion at his school, Will and I wrote a book highlighting all the typical kid things he does – swimming, playing, bike riding, etc. It also teaches basic vocabulary and terms to kids about his specific differences. Together, we read it to his class so that they understand Will is different, but also a lot like them. They can also ask me any questions they have (kids are so very curious) and then move on to being friends with Will. I will never forget when I read the book to his kindergarten class. I was so nervous and praying so hard that he would be included and okay. I had no idea how in the world I was going to walk out of that campus and leave him all alone with those cute little potential wolves. As I finished the book and asked for questions, several hands shot up. I braced myself – we’ve had some pretty difficult questions from little curious kids before, and we’ve faced a few cruel kids, too. One child told me he could run fast like Will and another said she liked his shirt. I suddenly knew he was going to be just fine.

When we were pregnant with our son, my husband and I agreed that we were going to give Will the most “normal” life possible. For us, a big part of that has been inclusion. I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about it in such a formal way, however. I’ve simply expected others to include my kids! I haven’t made it an option for people not to include them. When my child has expressed interest in trying a sport, for instance, I’ve expected the team to let him play. So far, our attitude of expecting the best out of people and assuming that our child has equal rights to participate has worked out for us.

I’m not so naïve as to think it will always work out easily, but I will cross that bridge when we get there. Over the last few years, as I’ve watched baseball and soccer teams, classrooms, and strangers at the park include my children (for the most part). That has become my vision for an inclusive world. I want a world for our kiddos (all of our kiddos) where kids don’t think twice about having someone with a disability on their team or in their office or their school. I want to get to a point where the conversation isn’t needed. I can’t wait for the day when I don’t need to call ahead and prepare a coach before the first practice or call around to find a music teacher willing to be creative and think outside the box so my child can learn to play the instrument he wants to. As more and more parents encourage their children to try new things and to put themselves out there, I have great hope that this dream may be a reality soon.

A few weeks ago, my son had a new friend over to play. They played legos, had races indoors and outdoors, played superheroes and were typical little boys in every way – except one. My son, of course, is an amputee and his friend is in a wheelchair. At one point, I looked out towards our backyard and saw both boys up high in our fort- without their prosthetics or wheelchair. Somehow, they had each quickly scrambled up that thing and were busy playing up high – just like typical little boys. It occurred to me in that moment that apparently no one had ever told them they couldn’t do something. Again, my heart just about spilled over – so grateful for my own little boy and his courage and confidence, but also for his new friend and what little warriors these two are together.

katiebutts3As a parent raising two kids with physical differences, I think my role in promoting inclusion starts at home. I can’t make the world perfect. I can’t make every group inclusive. I’ve certainly cried some hot angry tears when I’ve seen kids exclude my children. I realize we will face hard days. But I can promote inclusion every day at home by teaching my kids that they can. They can live life their way, and that works. They can include others who may have differences. I can’t wait to watch them as they continue to grow up and inclusion becomes a way of life. That’s what my hope is for our children – that being included (having a chance to compete or work beside others) will become natural and a lifestyle for everyone.

–Written by Katie Butts, author of Baseballs, Butterflies, and Blessings and mother of Will and Ellie. Edited by KIT Staff.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

A Day to Remember

Some of you may remember my post a few weeks ago about hearing the r-word in school. I teach middle school special education, and it’s such a challenge to think about how little 12-year-olds know about what might offend people who are different from them. We can’t get mad because they honestly don’t know what is (and what is not) appropriate to say.

Today, I overheard some of my typically-developing students in my co-taught class arguing. I came over, ready to redirect them, when they asked, “Ms. Hopkins, is the r-word a bad word?” The answer to this question is not so simple. I decided to answer it with a short lesson about what the r-word really means.

I wrote two words on the board– “retarded” and “retard”– and asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever heard either of those words. I then asked students to raise their hand if they thought it meant something good, and then something bad. Most students thought it was something bad. Next, I showed a video titled, “We’re More Alike Than Different,” a public service announcement by the National Down Syndrome Congress.

We followed the video with a discussion about how we thought the stars of that video would feel if they heard someone say, “That’s so retarded” about something bad. My students were very quick to say that they didn’t think it would be a nice thing to say and they thought it would hurt the feelings of the people in the video. One girl even went on to say that even though things may take some people with disabilities longer to understand something, she thinks we should admire them because they persevere and work harder than people who don’t have disabilities.

After school, two girls approached me in tears. They thanked me for showing that video to them and said it really “opened their eyes” and pushed them to “think about people we don’t always think about.” I was so proud of them for challenging themselves and their peers to have the mature conversation that we had. Today was a reminder that kids can be so profound, challenging their beliefs to become more mindful of others. We just have to assume best intentions and provide them with a safe space to grow into leaders. Today, I am thankful for my students and their potential to make the world more inclusive. What are you thankful for?

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Our Take on Inclusion

This week, we are sharing a story that showcases a different type of inclusion. At Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, Debra Jenkins started a program for children with disabilities. At her program, the children build relationships with teens who are trained to teach them dance. Though this does not follow KIT’s traditional model of inclusion, Debra shares a beautiful story showing that any type of inclusion benefits the people involved. 

In 2008, I started an arts education program for people with special needs at the non-profit organization my husband, Alan, and I co-founded. As I was formulating this program, “experts” repeatedly told me that parents would not be enthusiastic about my program because it didn’t follow the traditional model for inclusion. Rather than being paired in a setting with their typical peers, my students are paired with trained teenage volunteers who provide whatever level of assistance each student requires in order to fully participate in the activity at hand.

jenkins5As I got to know the parents of our first 10 students, I asked them what inclusion meant to them. They all expressed the view that inclusion has more to do with being given access to mainstream activities and less to do with being in a setting where everyone is the same age.

My favorite story to illustrate our version of inclusion involves the theatre department at a local private school and the 15 adults with special needs who attend an afternoon session of our day habilitation program. The school’s theatre director called me last fall. We’ve known each other for years so I was baffled by the awkward and hesitant way she was beating around the bush about the reason for her call.

She finally said, “I need to ask you something but I’m not sure how to ask it in a politically correct way.”

“You won’t offend me as long as you don’t use the ‘R’ word!” I assured her.

“I’m directing my students in a production of The Boys Next Door in the spring and have four teenage boys who need to spend time around men with special needs so they can understand how to portray them. Do you have a program we could come to so my actors can observe adults with special needs?”

The Boys Next Door is a well-known play that centers around four men with intellectual disabilities who live in a group home. I was excited that one of our high schools would tackle the material and because I know the director so well, I was confident that the young actors would be coached to present adults with disabilities with respect and not as stereotypes.

We agreed that all of her theatre students needed to be comfortable with the subject matter, not just the featured actors, so we decided that she would check her theatre students out of school at 2 p.m., and spend three hours with the adults in our Wednesday afternoon session for a six-week grading period.

The first session the theatre class attended was … well, it was uncomfortable. The twelve students, typical 15-18-year-olds, hung back, watched and listened but were reluctant to engage with the adults. And the adults wanted to know why these teenagers had shown up to watch them. But as the weeks went by, things began to change.

jenkins7Gradually, the teens started participating in the activities our adults were doing … painting, creative writing, music therapy, yoga … and as they engaged in these activities, conversations started developing and shared interests were discovered. It didn’t take long for the teens and adults to work their way through the awkward phase that comes with putting two seemingly disparate groups of people together and suddenly, friendships started to form.

At the end of the teens’ six-week grading period, their director told me the teens didn’t want to end their weekly visits and we agreed they would continue coming as a group through the end of the play’s production. Week after week, typical teenagers spent three hours with adults with disabilities and week after week, their bonds grew stronger.

And then, really cool things started happening…

jenkins4One of the teenage girls and her mother hosted the women in their home for a Sunday afternoon of pampering, complete with local hair dressers and make-up artists donating their time and services. Several of the boys in the class started making weekly visits to the group home where six of the men in our program live, bringing fried chicken and playing 3-card poker together. Three of the girls have a standing date once a month with three of the women – an afternoon of shopping and eating out that the six of them eagerly anticipate. And best of all, several of the boys in the class also play football. When they told their football coach about their new friend, a young man with an uncanny ability to track college football players’ statistics, the coach offered the young man a job as the Assistant Team Manager and arranged transportation for him from his group home to the school every afternoon for football practice and every Friday night for their games.

jenkins6This particular private school has a reputation for rigorous academic standards and prides itself on grooming students for the Ivy League. This school does not have one single student with special needs in its population. And yet, there are 15 adults with special needs who are now considered part of this school’s family, who are invited to its pep rallies and choir concerts, its dances and celebrations and who are welcomed with open arms by the students, faculty and administrators. This may not look like the traditional model of inclusion, but it is bringing the same benefits of inclusion to everyone involved.

Those theatre students caught on quickly to the benefits of inclusion. They understood that diversity is about more than just race, gender or ethnicity. They recognized that spending time with people who have special needs was offering them a different perspective on what it means to be “normal” and have adopted Merrimack Hall’s slogan … “Normal is a dryer setting.”

jenkins8When one of their classmates committed suicide last year, they found great solace in the comfort they received from their friends with special needs. When they receive their college acceptance letters or make an “A” on a test, they want to share the good news of their achievements with their new mentors. When they have a bad day at school, they have a new group of adults to turn to for help in dealing with their teenage angst.

One of the adults told me, “I like my new teenage friends. They are silly and full of energy and make me feel younger.” Another said, “It’s good to have young folks who listen to my advice.” And the best, “I don’t feel so alone anymore. Those kids need me.”

jenkins1Whatever the setting and however it looks, inclusion enriches the lives of everyone involved. I’ve come to believe that the greatest benefits of inclusion come to us typically developing folks. Ask any of the hundreds of teenagers who have come through our program since 2008 and they will tell you … becoming involved in the lives of our students has made them better people. They have a deeper understanding of what it truly means to accept others for who they are, not for what they look like or how they speak or what they do for a living. Aside from my family, I personally value the relationships I have with people with special needs – of all ages – more than any other relationships in my life.

–Written by Debra Jenkins, co-founder of Merrimack Hall’s Johnny Stallings Arts Program

Debra Jenkins is the co-founder of Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Merrimack Hall’s Johnny Stallings Arts Program serves more than 500 children, teens and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities through arts and cultural programs, weekly classes, summer camps and special events. To learn more, read her blog at www.dreamingwithyourfeet.com.