Inclusive Education, Inspiring Possibilities
by Katie Hughes
Inclusive and accessible school communities don’t just happen—they are created. Cathy Murrant, educator, and her former student John Draper know this well.
Draper entered grade one in the 1980s which was a pivotal time for special education. Several school boards had begun the shift from segregated “special needs” programming to integrated learning experiences. But few administrators or educators had hands-on experience in creating inclusive classrooms.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) in infancy, Draper is non-verbal. He was the first student to enter Murrant’s classroom formally identified as a “special needs” student. “When I met John, he was your typical six-year-old boy. Funny, curious, and full of mischief. He tried hard to learn most things, made friends easily, and his sense of humour made me laugh.”
Murrant admits that Draper’s arrival in her class wasn’t worry free. “My apprehension came from my concern that I was not skilled enough to teach a child who had what I considered at the time to be such different learning needs. I knew little about CP and even less about teaching a child whose way of communicating was non-verbal.”
Draper appreciates the challenges Murrant faced. “There were several years in elementary school when I was going through a new behaviour management therapist every couple of months. My screaming tantrums were legendary. My teachers during that period were amazing. It would have been easy for them to give up. They didn’t.”
Today, principles of differentiated instruction permeate the education system. The concept of tailoring lesson plans to suit their class’s full range of abilities is being embraced by many educators.
Murrant gives Draper much of the credit for instilling her teaching style with inclusive principles. “John taught me more than I could ever have taught him. I learned that there was more than one way for students to demonstrate what they knew and show me how smart they were. I also learned very quickly that when a child was acting out, it wasn’t because they were ‘bad’ or ‘not able to learn,’ but because I had yet to figure out how to teach them so they could be successful.”
Murrant’s inclusive approach to education is echoed in the presentations Draper, now 36, delivers at elementary and secondary schools. Through his socially responsible business Together We Rock!, he promotes accessible and inclusive communities. The school presentations encourage students to celebrate diversity and take the lead in making the changes they’d like to see. For his current success, Draper is quick to identify inclusion-minded educators like Murrant who gave him the tools he needed to move from elementary and high school on to college.
Attentiveness to Draper’s unique needs made Murrant aware that each of her students had individual strengths and weaknesses. The inclusion of multiple avenues for learning boosted achievement for an entire classroom rather than for just a single child. “Every lesson, activity or trip I planned I would ask myself, ‘How can John access this material and show what he knows?’ These questions transferred over to all my students, and I found myself looking for ways to ensure all were being included to their fullest capacity.” In the spirit of equality and inclusion, Murrant demanded the best from each of her students, regardless of ability. “John and his family never wanted to set the bar low, so I kept raising it and John kept moving the line higher and higher.”
In particular, Draper remembers a class competition in a local arts festival. The class project? Recite a poem. “Now, I do not talk,” he says, “but that did not seem to matter. In Ms. Murrant’s eyes, it would not be good enough for me just to be present: I was going to participate. When my class practised the poem, I was expected to point to the correct words and pictures on my wheelchair tray.” When the class won, Draper received a full share of the class’s sense of accomplishment. “I experienced something greater than a prize,” he remembers. “I experienced a sense of belonging and acceptance. A sense of being included. A sense of community.”
Murrant and Draper agree that coordination among teachers, specialists and parents is crucial to success. Communication lines need to stay open, honest and free from judgement.
“I have always loved the conversations that take place when truly passionate people are dedicated to finding the solution,” says Murrant. “Challenges arise when pieces of the puzzle are missing.”
The need for communication isn’t limited to parents and professionals. One of the most often overlooked strongholds of inclusion is students themselves. Classroom culture plays a key role in every child’s education.
For John, this culture shifted as he grew older. “In my intermediate grades, I transitioned from cute and disabled to socially unacceptable almost overnight. Bullying entered my life.” In response, John wrote a letter to his classmates, sharing his frustrations and sense of isolation. After the letter was read out loud to the class, his teacher waited on tenterhooks for the other students’ reactions.
After a few moments of hesitation, a hand went up. Then another. Questions rained down: “Do you sleep in your wheelchair?” “Are you angry you have a disability?” The questions sparked a discussion that lasted all afternoon and reshaped the classroom’s attitudes for the entire year.
Says Draper, “I realized that although I had been with these students for many years, there had never been a chance to answer their questions. As a result, they’d adopted some of society’s stereotypes about people with disabilities.”
Draper hears these same kinds of questions from his presentation audiences. He encourages the students to be comfortable discussing their differences. The conclusion to his presentations flips the focus from presenter to audience: “What can you do to make your school more accessible to and inclusive of everyone?” he asks the students. This question keeps them thinking long after the presentation ends. Draper’s activist learning approach challenges students to do more than reflect. He empowers them to change their communities. And the reports he hears are inspirational.
Murrant, now retired, encourages young teachers to use resources, to communicate openly and—above all—never to set limitations on student potential. “I have seen children learn to read who were never supposed to be able to read. I have seen children with extreme behavioural issues learn how to play with others in a group. I have seen children who are unable to speak perform on stage and bring the house down.”
Inclusive classrooms give every student the opportunity to exceed expectations, discover their strengths, and become part of a community.
“The biggest misconception about education is that it is not possible to include every student,” says Draper.
He and Murrant know that it is.