Change can be so incredibly, unbearably slow. And then there are those instants that bring about change so fast it’s a whiplash: for us here in Michigan that was March 13, when schools were first closed down. Almost everything in education has changed in some way over these past several months. With every new decision, we are putting together the pieces, one by one, in our homes and in our work and in our schools.
But I am excited about this dizzying, exhausting school year. Every one of those pieces, every brick to this new world, is an opportunity to build a community that is more accessible and diverse than we have had before.
In disability studies, there is a concept that compares the medical model to the social model of disability. These two models try to answer the question of what causes the disability: under the medical model, it is a physical difference, or deficiency, that must be diagnosed and addressed in order to understand the disability. Under the social model, a disability only exists because our culture has failed to recognize the natural diversity of humanity. Therefore, it is the social constructs that must be changed in order to address disability.
A common example of this change is found in architecture: it is no longer acceptable to build public spaces that are inaccessible to people using wheelchairs. So, often we build a ramp next to a stairway. But with enough planning and thoughtfulness, everyone could be walking up a ramp together, enjoying each other’s company along the way.
Christian educators are building ramps to our schools like never before—offering different formats for education, planning for teachers and students to participate even when isolated, and taking measures to protect those who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 symptoms. How many of these ramps can benefit all of our students? How often can we as school leaders and administrators walk the ramps of life together, building community along the way for students of all abilities and of all backgrounds and ethnicities?
As we are making the daily decisions concerning returning to education, worship, and all of our new normals, we get a big ‘do-over’ opportunity to assume the presence of a wide variety of the people of God—with all abilities and diversity. We get to plan for those who might be most marginalized in our society—the folks that Jesus showed us how to reach. We get the chance to turn our culture upside down, venerating those who have something different and unique to bring to our school community. We are able to build communities that look so biblically based in their inclusion and diversity, they seem unrecognizable to secular culture.
When we assume that others need to change and fit into the structures that we have built, we are using the medical model. That can be a punishing place to be for students who struggle. The social model of disability recognizes that we all need grace, we all need forgiveness, and we all need to learn how to see the world from someone else’s point of view.
There will be mistakes in this effort, but even in these errors we experience grace. In my experience building inclusive schools for students with disabilities, I have witnessed that the biggest mistakes happen when we don’t assume the need for grace—for trying again, and being willing to put new lenses on our eyes for understanding behavior, desires, challenges, social skills, and strengths.
Yes, looking for ways to build inclusivity is another layer of work in an already-full, exhausting, and stressful year. But not everyone gets the chance to see so much change take place within one lifetime, one generation, one year. Let’s make it a year where we see what that God can do when we take a leap of faith towards inclusion.