Three little girls of different ethnicities and abilities smile and put their arms around each other in a kindergarten classroom.

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Working around and in the field of disability services for over 30 years now, there are certain beliefs to which I hold firm. Least restrictive environments, all people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and every life has value and worth, you will not find me wavering on these at all. Other strongly held beliefs that I had when a care worker in the 80’s and 90’s, however, continue to be challenged now as a parent of a child with special needs. Tyler has made me look at life differently and many things I once strongly believed; he has made me question. One area I have written blogs on in the past are on age appropriateness. I have shifted my thinking over the years from some really strongly held “this is what it needs to be” to “who really gets to decide what’s age appropriate.”

Another area in which my thinking has shifted is on “full inclusion”. Before your dogma sets in, please hear me out. I think opportunity should be made available but if we truly want people with special needs to be treated equally then they should have a choice. My son would choose to be around others with special needs when given a choice. Tyler finds safety and comfort in being around other people like him. Is that really any different than any of use? We gather and hang out with people who are similar to us all the time because we find safety in it. Don’t get me wrong, like me, Tyler needs to go outside his comfort zone periodically to help with his understanding of others and grow. But at the end of the day, shouldn’t he have the choices I get? I choose my friends, civil organizations, and people with whom I share my free time. Often these people are very similar to me in likeness, socio-economic standing, and family make up.

I was reminded of this again this week as I dropped him off at Camp High Hopes. Tyler has gone to this camp for people with special needs for several years now and he thrives! As I watched him walk up to me when I picked him up at the end of the day, one of his peers was high fiving him because apparently, they had been “champions”. Tyler’s face beamed and he reciprocated the high five with gusto and a big smile. He then ran up to me and high fived me saying “I did it!” Pride displayed all over his face.

On the ride home I couldn’t stop thinking about my vehement arguments two decades ago about why don’t we just provide better supports to people with disabilities at typical camps? Why separate them from typical kids? The answer, for Tyler, is because he would not feel as safe. With typical kids Tyler tends to stay outside the circle of activity. At Camp High Hopes he thrives in an inclusive environment. The typical kids in Tyler’s school do an amazing job with him. I am amazed by them all the time but Tyler would rather hang out with someone who has similar struggles as himself.

I do believe more typical opportunities need to exist in our society for individual’s with special needs. There are many barriers still needing to be overcome to allow kids like Tyler to have more choices. But in the end, it should still be his choice. I should not force him to try and function in areas where he feels less comfortable and safe. I will not know his full potential until he is in an environment where he can say, as is taught in the Mandt System, “In this place and with these people, I feel safe.” At Camp High Hope he thrives because he feels safe. Why would I ever want to change that?

Tim Geels – SVP of Instruction and Corporate Implementation

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