When I hear the dreams of parents who have a child with a disability, they often share a hope for belonging for their son or daughter. They have a desire for their child to belong to a community, marked by genuine friendships, after-school activities, valuable classroom learning, and ultimately, an encounter with God’s love. Their dreams are not any different than any parent’s dreams for their child.
In Christian schools especially, we have the opportunity—the joy—of celebrating with these parents that their children belong to God! And because we all belong to God, we belong to each other, regardless of perceived ability. As we are reminded in 1 Corinthians 12:4–6 (ESV), “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”
[F]ear can get in the way of belonging.
However, we know that fear can get in the way of belonging. When I talk with administrators, they often have questions about how a student will be supported academically or behaviorally, how to fund additional staffing, how other parents or peers will respond, or how the student will impact their school’s high achievement rankings. These are valid questions, and it can be tempting to completely avoid these potential issues by not enrolling the student.
However, we cannot let the challenges of inclusive education keep us from pursuing the gifts of inclusive education. The new questions that inclusive education will raise in our programs, systems, and fundings create challenges that never entirely disappear. Rather than pursuing a perfect solution that provides all the answers, we must commit together to work in the space between our practices and our faith.
While inclusive education is now well supported by research, the research lagged far behind the actual practice. The organization I help lead, All Belong (previously called the Christian Learning Center), launched one of the first inclusive education initiatives in a nonpublic school in 1989, at Zeeland Christian in West Michigan. At the time, this was a little known and barely tried educational approach for students with disabilities. But the leaders’ faithful conviction that students with disabilities deserved more than segregated environments led them to take action and risk.
[T]he leaders’ faithful conviction that students with disabilities deserved more than segregated environments led them to take action and risk.
For those Christian school leaders, their faith compelled them to pursue the calling to serve all students. Today we might consider them “early adopters” of a new educational movement. Perhaps, instead, they were Christians of action, living out their faith through a tangible opportunity to demonstrate God’s love. My prayer for all Christian educators today is for us to bravely, boldly, and urgently adopt opportunities to show God’s love to all students who come to our doors.
In a Christian school environment, too many leaders still consider inclusive education unproven, and they might perceive public schools as better equipped to provide inclusive education. Although that may be the case in some respects, evidence from qualitative stories and national legislation shows that students with disabilities are at best served inconsistently in public schools. Only as recently as 2016 did the Supreme Court mandate that students with individualized education plans (IEPs) must make “meaningful progress” instead of “progress” toward their goals to be considered adequately served (Endrew F. et al. v. Douglas County School District). And for most students, inclusion in the general education classroom and broader community will vary significantly by their zip code, their school district, and the leader of their school.
The calling for Christian educators today mirrors the calling of those leaders thirty-five years ago who launched Christian inclusive education. The implications of our faith today must inform our reactions to the needs of students with disabilities.
To belong to each other as we are called, we must move forward with courage and integrity. It can be tempting to get caught up in designing such a complete system that we lose track of the beautiful diversity of every student! At All Belong, we consider a high-quality inclusive education initiative to be founded on knowing students deeply.
Knowing students with disabilities in our Christian schools means seeing them as God sees them—as an essential part of our community
Knowing students with disabilities in our Christian schools means seeing them as God sees them—as an essential part of our community, as a child of God, as a friend, and as a faithful follower with much to contribute. This goes much deeper than a disability label or a set of accommodations to which a student is entitled. We know that categorization can be a helpful shorthand, but not when it leads to bias or assumptions. This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print or digital edition of Christian Educators Journal.
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the chief executive officer of All Belong Center for Inclusive Education, which envisions a world where every student with a disability is known, needed, and finds belonging in their Christ-centered school. All Belong partners with Christ-centered schools across the country to support their students and welcomes conversations and questions about inclusion of students with disabilities. Learn more at allbelong.org.