All You Need to Know About Inclusion Can Be Learned From My Service Dog

Barbara BurtonBy: Barbara C. Burton

The concept of inclusion is not a hard one to grasp.  In fact, if you feel a little confused or unsure I suggest you spend time with my service dog, Pierre.

Pierre is a big, fluffy, cream and caramel colored Labrador retriever who is generally the icon for equanimity.  Pierre loves people: big ones, little ones, and people of all colors. He doesn’t care what clothes you wear and he doesn’t understand religion except that we say a bracha, a blessing, before he eats.  Pierre has seen me walk with a cane and use a wheelchair and it doesn’t faze him.  He’s used to me talking too loudly when my hearing aids aren’t in; if it bothers him he just goes off to one of his beds.  One of my best friends is blind and another is vision impaired and Pierre thinks it’s great that when we go out they navigate using a white cane or by allowing me to guide them while I hold onto Pierre. Pierre thinks it’s our version of a parade.  Following meetings when he sees the son of one of our committee members, a young man who has an intellectual disability, he always manages to ease on over to solicit a cuddle, never caring about the man’s IQ; after all, he can scratch Pierre’s neck just as well as someone who has a PhD.

That’s Pierre.  He believes people are generally good and exist to be his friend.  It isn’t a bad attitude as long as, like Pierre, you are willing to reciprocate that friendship.

Pierre completely accepts it when other people who have disabilities join me in meetings, at lunch or at parties.  He seems proud to lead the line of me and my friends while people in a restaurant wonder which of us can’t see. He thinks it is quite normal for me to race a 5K while tethered by a shoelace to a partner who is vision impaired.  As long as he can lick her hand when we get back into the car he’s happy.

To Pierre it is all good.  He is not critical and never looks askance.

Barbara and Pierre

Barbara and Pierre

Inclusion is not tolerance. How would you feel if I told you my dog “tolerated you?” It’s pretty insulting, isn’t it? Inclusion starts with an attitude of acceptance and the desire and willingness to invite others to join you to participate fully and equally regardless of what they need to do so.  It is not difficult.

We need to change the attitude we develop as children.  We learn we are not to look at people with disabilities, not to ask questions, not to talk to them.  This creates a culture of separation and fear.  There is “us” and there is “them.” “Them”, of course, would be people who have disabilities.  In an inclusive world it is all of us, together, benefiting from each other’s company. In an inclusive world we appreciate people for who they are, not whether they can walk or see or hear or join Mensa.

In Pierre’s version of an inclusive world it doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not.  As long as you let him know he’s wonderful, he’ll let you know you are wonderful.

Barbara C. Burton, M.Ed., owns Capitol Inclusion, an accessibility and inclusion consulting company. Follow her blog and engage Barbara on Twitter.

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