This paper discuss viewing people with disabilities not by their labels but by a kind of culture. To successfully acquire such a view needs an educational effort in early childhood level. The paper demonstrates the importance of inclusive classroom setting in early childhood classroom. By being exposed to the culture of people with disabilities in younger age, students are less likely to develop certain prejudices and stereotypes with culture of people with disabilities. The purpose of this paper is to bring up an argument of viewing people with special needs as a kind of culture and encourage further research on developing practical classroom strategies of inclusive culture.Inclusive Culture in Early Childhood Classroom
From Dictionary, culture is defined as "the behaviors and beliefs characteristics of a particular social, ethnic, or age group" (Dictionary.com, n.d.). When we use the term 'culture' in our daily lives, this is perhaps the most common meaning we put into the term 'culture.' We differentiate ourselves into different types of culture to feel the sense of belonging. We mostly put us into culture according to our appearance. There are cultures defined by race, ethnicity, age, or social class. We draw a fine line between major culture and minor culture and their role in our lives. Most of time, where I belong becomes a major culture in my life, because that is what I am mostly exposed and familiar to. For minor cultures, even though you are not belonged to it, you still consider them a part of society. And there is a culture of people with disabilities.
In most children's lives, disabilities don't play a big role due to lack of interaction. For example, I went to regular public elementary school to high school and did not have any interaction with people with disabilities. So when I was faced with a certain situation of dealing with people with disabilities, I did not know how to interact with them. It is not because I had a negative prejudice about people with disabilities that held me back, but more of lack of understanding of their culture. It is similar to an Asian student grew up in Asian county coming to America to study and face a huge culture shock due to such a various ethnic group he/she faces. What I experienced when I faced people with disabilities was a kind of culture shock and cultural ignorance. Because culture of disabilities was not my major culture, I never had any chance or courage to reach out to the culture. Human are social animal and we learn from the social interaction; however, current segregation of people without disabilities and people with disabilities don't allow the other side to understand each other's culture. Moreover, it is creating a unnecessary prejudices in each side's minds.
The act of inclusion is telling the others that you belong to this group. Inclusion builds a sense of community. As social animal, humans keep seeking to be included somewhere. Inclusion is a comforting action and it also creates a sense of safety that only opens people in the group to be closer and be real to each other. It is a process of accepting people of all backgrounds. Society has brought in the importance of integration in terms of race and socio-economic statuses; then why not bring in the integration of culture of disabilities? Inclusive classroom setting in education system can be the start of inclusive society. Students who are educated with the attitude of inclusion can bring their view into society, which can change the society's attitude towards inclusion. "Inclusion must be at the heart of any society which cherished these values and at the heart of a truly comprehensive education system" (Thomas, 1997, p. 106). Inclusion should not be considered as a special act in certain classrooms; however, it should be a generalized concept throughout education system. It is an essential act towards an inclusive society. Inclusive culture in education system is only a start.
Thomas (1997) says an inclusion is "Redefining and modernizing of the term 'special needs'" (Thomas, 1997, p. 103). It is a change of our common perception towards a term disability or special needs. A use of a term 'special' only provokes our prejudices that people with special needs are unable to achieve what regular people achieve. The term itself is segregating people with disabilities from people without disabilities. People with disabilities are termed with special needs because they are getting extra help; however, doesn't every student need a special attention?
Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is granted to every people who are diagnosed with disabilities in United States and I believe that all children need an individualized education plan. Only because people with disabilities have diagnosis from doctors that they get specialized help; however, every child deserves an individual help. The needs can differ; however, it is clear that they are in needs of attention. It is conversely unequal to students without disabilities. Inclusive classroom culture where they view people with disabilities as a different culture could benefit not only students with disabilities but also students without disabilities. Viewing students without disabilities as much in need as students with disabilities would decrease the alienation. Inclusive classroom is an attitude of accepting everyone as part of one society, not segregating them. The ultimate goal of inclusive classroom is to include people with disabilities as part of our society and viewing them as a different kind of culture as mentioned before.
Inclusive class doesn't need to be practiced dramatically; however, small changes in classroom can make a big difference. For example, teachers can start presenting positive attitudes towards disabilities. Presence of pictures or signs hanging on the wall showing different kinds of culture and people can reinforce diverse perspective in students' mind. Including students with disabilities without any proper training or any proper plan would only harm building inclusive culture; however, small steps wouldn't be so harmful to students as well as not so difficult for teachers to approach to students. Modeling behavior can also be a start. There can be few students in class who don't have disabilities but who are slow learners. Teachers can show the class not the negative attitude of treating them as if they are stupid, but treat them as same as rest of class. It will show the concept of accepting everyone into our society, which is a defining characteristic of inclusion. "Default assumption of acceptance which is the defining characteristic of inclusion (Thomas, 1997, p. 103)." Few changes on acts and classroom environment of more exposure to inclusive culture could be a great start on the way to inclusive society.
Inclusive classroom settings should be practiced in early childhood level is because a student who has never had any interaction with peers with disabilities may automatically alienate them in his/her mind due to the lack of information. "As Riser and Mason (1990, 7) have argued, 'children are not born with prejudices against disabled people, but acquire them from adults, the media, and the general way in which society is organized'" (as cited in Beckett, 2009, p. 320). Our school system forcibly segregates students and children are educated in a highly prejudiced environment. The segregated culture conveys enough messages of segregated culture between people with disabilities and people without disabilities to children. As children grow in such an environment, even though there is no clear message of segregation, they are socially learned to segregate them from those who are different from them. Early childhood classes are the first start for every child's education and inclusive culture should be practiced from the beginning.
An early childhood aged child, as well as adults, goes through different stages of development. Berk (2009) discusses different areas of development that early childhood children go through: cognitive, language, physical, self, emotional and social development. Children are constantly learning something and open to the world. They perceive the world as they see and it is important what kind of environment we provide to children. By putting a child in a segregated class, we automatically let a child perceive the class as a standard. It only builds an unconscious prejudice inside a child's mind. "The mere existence of supposed groups defined by these factors forces us to categorize and the categories encourage a particular mind-set about a group (Thomas, 1997, p. 103)." Categorization of people by their appearance is set in children's minds by mere existence of segregated culture in classroom.
For early childhood students, play is an important role in developmentally appropriate curriculum. Early childhood is when students perceive learning as fun process and play is a big role in conveying learning as a fun process. There are six different stages of play. It starts as a child playing alone to children playing together with rules. Play involves social interaction among children. When a child reaches to a stage of playing that involves interaction with other children that is when they start to build their sense of community. Children learn how to build a community, which shares their own culture. "To share the same spaces as other children and to 'speak the same language'" (Thomas, 1997, p. 105). By sharing same spaces and same culture, children create their own language. Inclusion starts from the early childhood level of creating same language. It is the language that only children in same group speak and it creates a sense of belonging which leads to inclusive classroom. Through this action, children perceive a person with disabilities as a different person, not disabled person. This view can lead them to become students with inclusive mindset and the more these students there are, the more the society will become inclusive and understanding of different culture.
Becket (2009) said, "Education system has the potential to rise above the inequalities of society, and even play a part in reducing those inequalities (Beckett, 2009, p. 317)." Education system is a core of society. It has potential to break the prejudices by educating students' different values and the earlier the education begins, the sooner the society will break the inequality. The current trend of viewing people with disabilities as disabled people cannot break the cycle of segregation. If we start viewing those with disabilities as having a different culture and accept them on equal culture as we are, we can start understanding them more easily. People with disabilities do not need pity, but they need supports, much like everyone else. It is education's job to educate people without disabilities equal way of viewing people with disabilities and at the same time educating people with disabilities to integrate into society. "One of the functions of welfare provision in general, and education in particular, is to ensure the integration of individuals into society" (Oliver, 1996, p. 78). Not all students with disabilities are needed to be integrated with students without disabilities; for example, there are students who need a special environment. However, segregated culture should be banned from school because it creates negative prejudices. Educational institutes are obligated to lighten up the segregated circumstances. Thomas (1997) says, "The organization of society's institutions (such as schools) should lighten and reduce those inequalities which arise from birth or circumstance, rather than exaggerate them (Thomas, 1997, p. 105)." Schools are the place where you learn about society and social interaction with others. Students develop their way of thinking during their school years. It is difficult to exclude the huge role school plays in children's lives. Schools need to be more active in diminishing the segregated culture.
Adams-Gray once said that "we educators should be 'the seed people of the world' those who prepare the ground and plant the seeds of the future" (Adams-Gray, as cited in Delpit, 2003, p.14). Educators are the seed people of every population. They plant little seed on children's mind, which could bloom to either a flower or to a poisonous plant. It is the way an educator grows a seed in children's mind. Whether they put on negative and segregated mind on children's minds or positive inclusive mind would determine the attitude when children grow up. Growing the seed in the right way should start in early age when children are open to everything. As vulnerable they are, educators can build an involving culture which could be a standard culture on their mind. The main factor in inclusive culture is viewing others as same human being with different features. "I'm relating to this person, I'm not relating to this person's label, class, ethnicity, or race, but I'm relating to this person's interest where the differences do not matter as much as what we have in common" (Carolyn Anderson, as cited in Marylhurst). When a teacher approaches to a student with disabilities, what a teacher needs to perceive the first is not his/her appearance, but how much they resemble and what kinds of interest this person has. Developing such a perspective would strength cultural competence and more tolerant in both teachers' and students' mind. Inclusive classroom is necessary for inclusive society.