by Betsy McAlister, Guest Contributor
The realization that something is unfair comes in many forms, and often during unexpected moments. Our moment came last year when my older daughter was a senior in high school. She had tears in her eyes after listening to me explain that her freshman sister was being asked to drop choir due to vague reasons that it might be too difficult.
Her sister, born with developmental disabilities, had been in choir since elementary school, and we thought her participation in the high school choir was a given. And yet discrimination and the difficulties of inclusion were unfolding, once again, in our family life.
As a parent, there have been many times I have faced a teacher, neighbor, friend or stranger who does not understand inclusion; however, my mind kept questioning how my younger daughter could enjoy the benefits of a music program if she wasn’t even in the class.
The reality is, physical presence is the first step to inclusion. If my daughter is not even at school events, public places or family gatherings how can she participate? Where is her dignity of risk? Shouldn’t high school, for her, be about new experiences and classes and not about exclusion and imposed limits?
We were faced with choices: educate, push, pause, agree or disagree. In this instance, my mandate from my younger daughter was clear: it was time to push. She repeatedly made it clear to me she wanted to stay in her choir class, and she needed help in advocating. This opportunity was not about a power struggle between her teacher and me but about my daughter’s passion for music and her goals in high school.
As my husband and I strategized and attended numerous meetings, we agreed that we had to do what is really hard to do: we listened. We went to every meeting requested, and we listened…again and again and again. We listened when the teacher mentioned that my daughter’s presence was not fair to other students because it was a performance choir. It was hard to listen to that, but we did.
We engaged our daughter in the process, made our expectations clear and found her additional support for the class. We refused to agree to her being transferred out of choir, but we also came to the table with ideas, openness and support. And through the process we found her choir teacher became willing to work with us and offered many great suggestions and ideas.
This September, at a fall choir performance, my husband and I listened to a few choir members on stage share why they loved choir. Each mentioned the beautiful music first thing in the morning, the friendships, the learning, and the caring atmosphere of their “choir family.” One student gushed, “Choir is just the best.”
My husband smiled at me as we understood those same experiences were just what we hoped our daughter would enjoy. The path was difficult, but there she stood in a beautiful dress on stage singing.