As a child, things that were different from expected orders or previous experience were a major issue for me. Truth be told, I still have difficulties with it. But the fear level that basic differences invoked as a child was pretty high. Adjusting to the diversity of the world around me was very scary when I was very little. I didn’t have ways to effectively categorize many unexpected experiences- from someone who always wore pants suddenly wearing skirts to rooms being arranged different from usual- and the level of overwhelm involved was dreadful.
One day a teacher- I believe it was in a pull out for speech and language arts, but I could be wrong- read me a story. It was illustrated, which was good as I hadn’t learned how to read on grade level at that point. It was very short. It asked a “what if?” question. What if everybody dressed the same at all times- everybody wearing brown suits, from old men to babies. On the facing page was a very dull street view of everyone looking the same in the same outfits. The teacher then talked about some of the possible “thens” or consequences: It would be harder to tell people apart; people might have trouble demonstrating their role without task specific gear; there would be fewer opportunities for beautiful things. Enhancing this experience was that I had a visual aversion at the time to the particular shade of brown. She also talked about some things that were a little more complex- for example, people showing their personality in their dress.
She had me look at the page, and it was scary to me in a way that new categories often are. The markers for what they were and what their context was became even more subtle, and that was difficult. Then we came to the next page, where the facing illustration was bright and diverse. A mother pushed a carriage; kids formed teams; old men wore cardigans and middle aged men suits. Seeing those markers made it a lot more obvious what were groups and what were not. The teacher talked about the different benefits of diversity: fresh perspectives; markers, some obvious and some more subtle than I could grasp without help; beauty; and the ability to get more out of the world. This page was beautiful, more beautiful in light of the monotone of the page before it.
I don’t know for sure what she was intending to teach, but that story or exercise stuck with me. In retrospect, I’m sure it had many little problematic things to it. But what it did for me was important- it taught me that there is strength and, even more, beauty in diversity. Over time, that embracing of diversity developed into a love of all types of diversity- bio diversity in nature; socio-political diversities; diversity of our bodies; diversity of experiences; and yes, eventually neurodiversity. This one very short story opened my little mind up to much larger ideas down the road, ones that would help me to the better in dealing with the world around me. It demonstrated broadly a possibility, and flamed my curiosity about the world around me. It was still difficult, but that curiosity motivated me to see things through.
Lately, I’ve been reading a bit on children’s books. There are some big questions asked- how do we go beyond integration of diverse people in our children’s books to actual inclusion? How do we include without it becoming a “very special story/episode?” How do we get kids to apply these things to their classmates and neighbors? There’s a lot of wonderful discussion across disability advocacy, education, and parenting worlds.
I imagine that doing these things effectively will become more important as educators attempt to follow (to some extent) the recent Department of Education guidance about bullying and students with disabilities. This decision states, in short, that removing the victim is not an effective way to deal with bullying of students with disabilities, and that it could be considered a violation of the student’s right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment according to the department. (You may have encountered these ideas in their abbreviations, FAPE and LRE.) I’m cynical enough to question how well it be put into practice. But I do think that as educators attempt to apply this guidance there will be even more interest in effective inclusive story telling.
Now I know that my story above is a little specific in the details and mechanisms of working with a child like me with some delays in certain types of communication and social comprehension. (I gained quickly after I learned to read, but was delayed in when I began reading. I still have some social comprehension issues though they have improved.) But I believe that the core piece applies across the board- the development of curiosity that is not hindered by fear of the unknown.
So I’d add as a core issue in the discussion of inclusive storytelling “How do we ignite curiosity that the child can build on?” Because curiosity is a tool that can take us so much further-especially when if comes to embracing the possibilities.
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