Inclusion and Access: Good Intentions, Bad Habits

by Nechama Cohen

A month or so ago, there was great discussion here and around the web about inclusion relating to an incident at Camp Ramah Canada. I closely followed the firestorm, mostly in order to try and understand the way the different writers use the terms “inclusion” and “access.”

I have been thinking about it a lot, and I want to share something that happened to me.

During the discussion here, I, too, wrote about the subject without getting involved in the big debate because I was not familiar with the facts.

A while later, after writing down my very strong beliefs on the subject, I fell into a bad old habit and did exactly the opposite of what I preached.

As an initiator and developer of an educational program for schools in Israel, I try to teach using language that promotes an accessible society. In that language, “access” means:

  1. Viewing the world through the eyes of the other.
  2. Seeing each person as an entirety – to see past the disability, limitation or impairment, and relate to the person in front of you with all their abilities and achievements as well.

Well, sometimes it is easy to fall back into bad habits and forget the language of access I am trying to teach. That’s what happened to me last month as I was driving my kids home from camp. Turning into my street, I noticed one of the residents from the hostel (for people with mental disabilities) on my street, standing in the middle of the pedestrian crossing and throwing her shoe. I stopped the car on the side of the road and I tried to phone the hostel to notify them that one of their residents seemed distressed and was endangering her life. While I was trying to call, a car stopped and picked her up but her shoe remained in the middle of the street. I ran out of my car, picked up the shoe and drove straight to the hostel for to return the shoe. I immediately looked for a counselor in order to explain what happened and return the shoe. As I was heading towards the counselor, the shoeless woman appeared and I handed her the shoe but continued to address the counselor. I tried to tell him what happened but he turned to the woman to ask her why she threw her shoe, which she was throwing again and refusing to wear it.

When she did not answer, she said she would tell him later what actually happened there. I still did not get it and I tried again to explain what happened on the street trying to alert him to the danger of the situation. I could not understand why he wasn’t interested. Why was he not listening to me, and then as I went back into my car, it hit me. It is exactly like the situation that people using wheel chairs talk about constantly: people talking about them above their heads, to the person wheeling the chair or accompanying them as if they themselves do not exist, or cannot understand a word. That is exactly what I did, even after the counselor pointed out that the woman would tell him later what was wrong. People who deal with mental illness can many times speak for themselves. My testimony was not needed here. Thank you for returning the unwanted shoe but please respect its owner.

I hope I learned my lesson this time. Next time I speak to our counselors or to students, I will make sure to add this story to my collection of stories so other people can learn how easy it is to forget what inclusion and access really mean.

Nechama Cohen founded and directs Makom Lekulam – A Place For All. Nechama is an educator with expertise in special education, and for many years she volunteered to raise funds to aid families of children with disabilities. In 2010, together with her husband Yair, founded the organization as a framework for realizing its goals of societal change, hand in hand with continued assistance and mutual support for all.