The person I have in mind when mulling over inclusion is my 12-year-old son who has a rare-genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Between these two diagnoses he has developmental delays, low muscle tone, hyperphagia (insatiable hunger), is considered non-verbal and as a result is a low-incidence (rare) special needs child in the school system.

In its Learning Support Plan, the Victoria School District defines inclusion as: “a way of thinking and acting, grounded in a belief that with the right supports, every learner can be successful in their schools and classrooms. Inclusive schools embrace the value of our diversity and see our differences as strengths. All students have an authentic sense of belonging in their school community and are supported to develop their full potential in the academic, social-emotional and physical domains.”

I appreciate the language here, but so much depends on interpretation. For example, the word “successful” and the phrase “authentic sense of belonging” are both subjective and difficult to measure.

For my son, success in an inclusive school would mean that he makes friends, learns to read and write, learns needs-based math, is physically active, and learns how to live in the world after school. For typical kids, success may look more like going on to higher education, learning to think critically and problem solve, make friends and become independent adults.

Integration—not inclusion—is closer to what my son experienced in elementary school. My sister-in-law, Angela Stott, also the vice-principal at Golden Secondary School explains that integration is like putting my son in a typical class but having him do his own thing.

“For example,” she says, “he would be doing something on his iPad or working with an assistant on something that the rest of the students are probably not doing.”

I witnessed this when I visited my son’s class to teach poetry. He was sitting in the back with his educational assistant (EA), reading a book unrelated to what I was doing. Simply put, he was not included in the lesson I had been invited to share. How strange it must have seemed for him, to have his mom there but not be expected to listen to her, engage with her or learn from her.

Inclusion, on the other hand, enables all children to be doing the same thing.

“If the students are learning about plastic in the ocean and it is a group project, he would be with a group and doing something for the project where learning is happening for him,” says Stott. “If it was individual, he would also learn about plastics in the ocean and present his learning in a way that works for him…using Pictello, an iPad app that uses photos and text, for example.”

My son has inclusive learning experiences every day at school now, but not in every subject.

In some of his Exploratory subjects he participates as a near-equal with the assistance of his dedicated EA and with peer help. Recently in Global Action, the students visited Haro Woods to learn about invasive species. Saanich provided equipment and the kids pulled out ivy and holly in small groups. My son’s partner cut and pulled the holly and my son collected it and carried it to the tarp with extra help from his EA or peer. It was a perfect activity for full inclusion. In Science, too, the teacher provides an inclusive class, though while my son’s peers move on to more complicated subjects that are less accessible to him, my son concentrates on the ones he can manage.

Accessibility is a big part of inclusion. If a subject is not accessible, such as mathematics and some PE sports, then the child can’t be included. My son is not at a Grade 7 math level. Also, it makes more sense for him to learn the math and numeracy to understand money, time, and measurements. Language Arts is another tricky subject. My son loves books and can be included for novel reading, but he can’t be fully included because he’s non-verbal, and is not reading at the same level. There is a benefit to having him be a part of Language Arts while at the same time there is also an educational imperative to offer a pull-out (or resource) program for reading, spelling, writing practice and other activities at his language level.

A dual-system that is inclusive with other low-incidence kids and inclusion with the wider school population allows my son to feel included while also ensuring he gets an education that is accessible to him. We have this now, but it is being phased out in the district.

Another parent whose son is also a low-incidence learner in the school district told me her son spent kindergarten to Grade 5 in a mainstream classroom.

“With each year, as typical kids developed and he didn’t, his suitability and belonging in the classroom became less and less,” she said. “In Grades 6 to 8 at Arbutus in a classroom with other special ed students, he, for the first time in his life, felt a sense of belonging.”

A dual system is ideal, one that recognizes how inclusion can also happen in smaller groups where kids have more similarities than differences, and where they can develop friendships rather than relationships that are troubled by an automatic ability-based power imbalance.

This raises the question of who inclusion is benefitting. The mom whose son attended Arbutus says, “For us, including special ed children in the mainstream classes has been a huge success, but only for our two typical children.”

Recently I picked up my son, skipping and laughing, from school. He’d just had Grade 6 buddies visit his low-incidence classroom. He was placed with a group of four girls and used his iPad to share stories about his summer. All the students were well-supported by the EAs and teachers in the room. Some of his new friends did not want to leave. The pull-out program can also benefit typical kids in the school with an interest in spending more time with kids who are diverse. My son was interested in communicating with his group and they were in tune with what he wanted to say.

Inclusion in the schools is complicated, but vital to all kids. For my son’s education, a low-incidence pull-out program is also necessary.

Yvonne Blomer is a Victoria writer and the past Poet Laureate of Victoria. Her most recent books are Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur and Refugium: Poems for the Pacific.