Family is the First Inclusion Classroom

Yesterday, I found Petra circling the dining room by herself, looking around. She was waving her right hand in the air and saying, “Um, Um.”

“You want your water?” I asked.

“Yes, please,” she said.

Petra is perfectly capable of saying the word “water,” but she knows that in this house, “Um-um” and a hand wave also means water. Because that’s how Fiona communicates it.

I smiled to myself and found Petra’s cup.


This afternoon, while I was finishing my lunch and the kids were mulling around the table, Petra started poking at Fiona’s talker. It was propped on a chair. Fiona walked over to it. Together, they stood in front of the talker and pecked at words. My. There. It. Family. But Fiona’s hand got in Petra’s way, so Petra batted it away from the talker.

“No, Petra,” I said. “That’s Fiona’s talker. You have to let her use it.”

And she did. She stayed to her side of the talker. She started watching her sister. Fiona pressed Dad.

Petra shouted, “Dad!”

Fiona pressed Mom.

Petra shouted, “Mom!”

And so the game began. Fiona pressed a person’s name, then looked with anticipation to her sister. Her sister shouted the name back enthusiastically and smiled. They moved onto other words. Picture schedule! Butterfly! Happy Birthday!


I wish I could find the quote for you. I think it’s from Including Samuel, an award-winning documentary about the inclusion of kids with disabilities in typical classrooms. The quote goes something like this:  The first fully inclusive institution for a person with disabilities is the family.


A few weeks ago, I stood before three rows of twenty or so students. I was at a university in Boston. The students had read my essay, “The R-Word.” I was answering questions about my work and the writing life. A student to my right raised her hand. “Do you ever worry what Petra will ask about Fiona’s disabilities?”

“Worry?” I repeated. “No. I think about it, but I don’t worry.” I was then able to tell this student with all honesty something I never thought I’d say four years ago. Four years ago, when Fiona was just a baby, her diagnosis felt like a tragedy. But standing in a classroom in Boston, in my brown knee-high boots and professional-looking dress, I could honestly tell this student that Fiona’s differences enrich our whole family. That disability is an aspect of human diversity, and human diversity is a gift for everyone. I don’t know all the ways in which Petra’s life will be enriched by her sister; but I get to watch it unfold every day.


Tonight, I was reading Fiona and Petra a pop-up book about safari animals. Each page begins with clues, and when you open the next page, you find a 3-D version of the animal that was clued. “My skin keeps me cool when I’m not in the water. What am I?” Gray eyes poked from a lake’s surface.

I pecked on Fiona’s talker. “What. Am. I?”

Fiona tapped open the “animals” page on her talker. “Scorpion,” she said.

“Elephant,” Petra said.

“Okay, let’s find out,” I said, and hit “Turn,” on the talker. Fiona turned the page.

A giant hippo unfolded from the book. I used an occluder — a black square of construction paper with a square hole the size of the talker icons — to highlight a word on the talker. Fiona hit the highlighted word.

Hippo,” the talker said.

“Hippo!” Petra said.

The book ended. Eventually, we all disbanded from the couch. I went to the kitchen for something, and Fiona followed. But when I returned to the living room, I found Petra leaning over her sister’s talker. I found her holding the occulder. She was highlighting words with it, pressing her finger on the words, and repeating them back to herself.

[Image: Overhead shot of Petra and Fiona's talker. She's in gray fleece pajamas. The talker is on the couch and she's leaning over it. In her right hand is the occluder, and she's using it to highlight a word.]

[Image: Overhead shot of Petra and Fiona’s talker. She’s in gray fleece pajamas. The talker is on the couch and she’s leaning over it. In her right hand is the occluder, and she’s using it to highlight a word.]

[Image: overhead of Petra and Fiona's talker. Petra's right hand holds the occluder over a word icon, and her left pointer finger touches the word.]

[Image: overhead of Petra and Fiona’s talker. Petra’s right hand holds the occluder over a word icon, and her left pointer finger touches the word.]


7 thoughts on “Family is the First Inclusion Classroom

  1. This is such a perfect example of how human diversity in all its many manifestations is beautiful and enriching and brings endless surprises and wonders. I love reading about your family. Both the highs and the lows:) thank you!

  2. Home team-teaching – everyone learns from everyone else. Lovely, and as it should be. My daughter didn’t have the benefit of a sister or brother, but God knows when she was little she taught me new things every day, and despite all the hardships, I savored, treasured that.

  3. Wow, ure blog had truly inspired me and given me hope. I also have a daughter with WH, she is almost 5 months old ( and an almost 2 year old with Autism) and I can relate to so many of your posts, especially the first ones. If you don’t mind me asking, were did u buy your talker for your daughter? My oldest is non verbal so something like that would help immensely.

    • Hi Laura, I’m so glad the blog has given you hope and inspiration. The “talker” is an iPad with the app, Speak For Yourself. We bought the iPad at an Apple store and the app online. all the best, Heather

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