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Opinion You can’t say inclusive education doesn’t work. We haven’t even begun to try

Allison Garber is a communications consultant based in Bedford, N.S. She is on the board of directors of Autism Nova Scotia.

I struggled to read the comments after Caroline Alphonso’s recent story Educating Grayson, about an autistic seven-year-old boy, and the “inclusive” education system in general.

Typically, I’d find the fortitude to wade in, but a recent event had left my heart raw.

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This past weekend, I took my two children to McDonald’s for lunch as a treat. It’s something they enjoy, and this time was no different. They finished their meal, and before we left, my son, who is autistic, told me he needed to use the washroom.

He’s 9, and we get “looks” if I bring him into the women’s restroom, so he assured me he could do it on his own. We went through the steps: Walk into a stall, lock the stall, do your business, unlock the stall, wash your hands, dry your hands, come out to mommy and your little sister.

That’s a lot of steps to keep in order.

I stood outside the door and watched him proudly walk in to face a sensory nightmare in the guise of a bathroom with fluorescent lighting, hand dryers that scream like pigeons caught in jet engines and no visuals on the walls to remind him of the multistep directions.

A minute went by, then another.

A man passed me to enter the washroom and shortly after I heard activity and voices. Not long after, my son walked out with the man following behind.

“He crawled under the stall," the man yelled so loud that everyone in the restaurant could hear. “Left the door locked. Now no one can get in.”

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My son looked gutted, shaking, with tears in his eyes.

“I got confused, mommy,” he whispered.

“My son is autistic, he must have gotten a bit anxious,” I told the man, and watched as a look of surprise was quickly replaced by one of defiance.

“Well, that’s your problem," he snapped as he walked toward his waiting family. “Not mine.”

This exchange so perfectly sums up society’s approach to inclusion. It’s a message that resonates with Grayson’s family, our family and thousands of others across this country: Your problem. Not mine.

When it comes to inclusive education, we slap a sticker on a mainstream classroom that says, “Open to all!” and assume the job is done. If your kid can’t make it work, that’s their problem and your problem, not our problem.

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Education is not a privilege. It is a human right. That means no child has more of a right to walk into a classroom than any other child.

We all know that is not how the system currently works.

Our education model was created to support “typically developing” children. When segregated classrooms were abolished, we invited children with disabilities and children who were neurodiverse into a space that was essentially designed to guarantee their failure.

Governments sporadically threw in subpar ratios of teaching assistants and specialists, but they were no better than the insufficient number of life boats on the Titanic. If you were able to grab onto the minimal amount of support, you might be in luck. Otherwise, you’re treading water, until you’re not.

That man from the restaurant bathroom, like so many of those commenting on the failure of inclusion, believe that the problem lies in the inadequacies of the child themselves, and not in the absolute fact that we have not ever made a dedicated, focused effort with the appropriate investments to create an inclusive education system.

You can’t say inclusion doesn’t work. We haven’t even begun to try.

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You know who is trying? Grayson is trying. My son is trying.

They are exhausting themselves navigating bathrooms, schools, work sites and every public space they enter that is not designed with them in mind.

My son is not a “problem.” My son is driven, tenacious and steadfastly determined to hurdle the obstacles that are continually placed in front of him.

The heartbreaking thing is that he is slowly learning that when he stumbles in public, he will be treated as he was in that restaurant bathroom – with uninformed judgment and a lack of compassion or empathy.

Sounds like something Grayson, at his young age, has become all too familiar with.

Inclusion isn’t forcing children with diverse needs to conform to the accepted norm. Until we shift that mindset, we will continue to send the message to children that they just aren’t worthy; they just don’t make the cut.

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And that’s a problem we all own.

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