Inclusionary activities for kids with special needs: I've been trying to do more of them for Max, and it hasn't always gone smoothly. For guidance, I reached out to Mary Verdi-Fletcher, president and founding artistic director of The Dancing Wheels Company & School in Cleveland. The school provides dance classes and performances, integrating dancers with and without disabilities. Thousands of kids ages 4 and up with sensory, intellectual and physical disabilities have passed through the school's doors; Marlo Thomas just did a documentary about it that you can watch on YouTube.
Mary (above) has spina bifida, and knows what it's like to grow up with a disability. She was the first professional wheelchair dancer in America, a former Miss Wheelchair Ohio, and is a longtime advocate in the disability community who currently serves on the advisory board of The ARC of Greater Cleveland | For People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Last year, Dancing Wheels participated in National Dance Day, a series of choreographed dance routines nationwide, through support from CVS Caremark All Kids Can.
"Even as young as three years old, I had a great love and appreciation of the arts," says Mary. "My mother was a professional dancer and my father was a musician. My lifelong dream as a child was to be a dancer, unheard of back then. My mother, who didn't know a lot about bringing up a child with disability—there weren't parent groups or ways for moms to connect back then—didn't have a way to take me to dance class. So she fostered an interest and love with me at home. We'd put on music and she'd have my brother dance with me in my braces and crutches.
In my early twenties, I was hanging out with some friends in a parking lot, with music playing. I was off to the side watching them dance and at some point they said, 'Let's all try.' As we all moved we saw a wheelchair was a vehicle of motion, combining elements of being on skates and a dancer in motion. I'd found a freedom that was incredible, to glide across floor in my wheelchair. It took me out of the realm of disability. I found a freedom that was incredible."
Mary had a whole lot of eye-opening advice and experiences to share—I learned a lot from her. Her tips on making inclusion best work for kids with disabilities:
Do some prep work. After you fill out form with your child's likes, dislikes and fears (exactly what I did for Max's inclusionary camp experience), it's best to meet the child's counselor, program director, Boy or Girl scout troop leader or teacher in person (exactly what I didn't do for Max). "You can really educate them about your child, and if there's an iPad involved, you can show them how it works," notes Mary. You can also discuss pairing up your child with a kid who has similar interests.
Help other kids understand your child's disability. "In my elementary school, I was the only child with a disability, and there were issues with kids not understanding it. Kids fear what's different. You, the teacher or the counselor or whoever can help other kids understand that, say, your child is in a wheelchair or walker because it helps him get from point A to point B. You can show them how the walker moves. You can push a walker across a room, without your child in it, and say 'Let's see how far it can go.' Tell them that it's made of the same materials airplanes are made of. They can understand the functional aspect of it—but also that it's a cool device!"
Help other kids understand how your child is like them. "Say your child likes cars. You could suggest that everyone bring in books about their interests, and then a counselor could ask questions about your child and his book. He's showing the other kids that just like them, Max has interests."
Focus on one kid, not all of them. "Realize that your kid is no different than other kids—he's not going to be friends with everyone! But he can make certain connections with some kids, based on shared interests."
Try not to interfere too much. "My mom had to go to school with me—every day she was with me, pulling me up flights of stairs and helping. When kids were mean, she defended me. She meant well but that wasn't good, because then you become the mama's girl."
Play games. They're a great equalizer among kids, who all like to have fun. "My mother was very creative about games," Mary says. "There was a tag game she came up with in which kids would run in a circle around me, because I couldn't run after them, and I was the 'bee' and I would tag them with my crutches. They thought it was a great game! At our school, we have kids sit in a circle. The teacher goes around the circle, and the kids say their name or the teacher says it for them if they are non-verbal. She asks each one, 'How would you like people to move when they hear your name?' The child might clap, or nod their head or just blink their eyes. And then the teacher will say, 'We're going to move like Max!' and everyone will do that movement."
Don't expect inclusion to just happen. "It evolves! Your child might be shy, like other kids. Other kids might be shy. It's typical in any group of kids for friendships to take time to form. And keep trying–even if there are issues one time, maybe it will work next time."
Think outside the box. "We do mini classes at children's hospitals, where there are kids hooked up to IVs and other contraptions. At one, we were doing a rhythmic exercise with kids in a circle. Everyone was clapping their hands but one little girl was not mobile and couldn't clap. So we asked her to click her tongue in time to the rhythm, and she loved it—it brought her into the fold. That's the essence of our school's structure, and the ideal for inclusionary activities—finding the ability in everyone. That's what you want every counselor or teacher or anyone who works with kids with disabilities to do, to look for vision of possibilities rather than limitations."