Stumbling on Belonging: A Closer Look at Inclusive Spaces

When people visualize an inclusive environment, they often picture a forced, excessively deliberate atmosphere. Certain topics are off limits. Certain jokes are avoided. Inclusion, in some people’s minds, is a pious concept, wherein the vast majority lose out to put a tiny minority at ease.

But when I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon an inclusive environment—my current workplace is an ideal example—it’s never been joyless or contrived. A lucky convergence of factors makes me perfectly comfortable, long before I realize it’s happening. By the time I become aware that I have found that rare sense of belonging, it’s too late to pinpoint precisely why it happened that way. All I can do is sit back and enjoy it, hoping I find it again elsewhere, and knowing there’s little I can do to reawaken the magic.

In my experience, thesimple, understated inclusionI crave simply can’t be planned, designed, or regulated. For example, at my current job I have all the technology I need to perform my duties, and a harassment policy to protect me from discrimination. There is, however, no mandate requiring staff to show me kindness or invite me to lunch or treat me with such implicit respect that I forget, for long stretches, that I’m any different from them. (It helps that a handful of coworkers have disabilities of their own. Seeing how well they were treated was critical.) Among my colleagues, I am taken at face value to such a degree that when some small mistake or accessibility barrier reminds me I’m disabled, it’s jarring. I spend all day being so effortlessly included that when I step outside that bubble and field someone’s intrusive questions or unwanted assistance, I’m brought back to earth with a painful jolt.

Oh, right. Visibly disabled. People are weird about this. Almost forgot.

For me, authentic inclusion naturally accompanies the people and places in my life that make me feel part of something much bigger—without singling me out or confining me to the diversity table. Fellow disabled people I’ve spoken to agree: there is no consistent pattern, and you can’t always predict the spaces that will trigger this elusive magic. I have found belonging in the most unexpected places, failing to find it where I expect it to be. I don’t necessarily feel most at home with people I have the most in common with, or people in my age group, or even in groups of disabled people. Indeed, I sometimes feel least comfortable around other disabled people, where you might hypothesize I should be most comfortable of all. No—there is little rhyme or reason, and I’ve come to accept that try as we might, we can’t guarantee everyone will belong. We can ensure we’re not freezing anyone out, and we can remove barriers, but that warm sense of welcome demands the right group of people, in the right place, at the right time.

In my favourite spaces, we go ahead and make the questionable jokes, and I am free to laugh because I know I am not made powerless. We may be drawn to one another by our interests, our career goals, or even our proximity; but ultimately, we are bonded by our mutual understanding that I, like everyone else in the room, am welcome. Not simply “included,” not merely “tolerated,” but valued. I am a contributor, not a liability. I am helpful, not helpless. I am an asset to be appreciated, not a box to be ticked or a funding source to be tapped or a quota to be met.

Maybe it’s all seeming a little mystical, but whether you’re disabled or nondisabled, there are small steps you can take that might make a huge difference to the disabled people around you:

  • Take people at face value. If they say they can do a thing, assume it’s true until they prove otherwise.
  • Match your expectations to what you observe, not what you assume. If they seem secure and competent, they probably are.
  • Accept their help when it’s offered. Don’t act as if the assistance can only flow one way.
  • Seek their feedback when planning for their participation. When someone asked me recently which board games I liked to play, rather than asking what I was “able” to play, my mind was blown. For the first time outside my family and friend groups, someone was less concerned with what was literally possible, and more concerned with what I’d actually find enjoyable.
  • Chill. Seriously, juuuust chill. Nothing kills inclusion faster than fixating on the things that make people stand out, at the expense of what brings them together.

So, no, you can’t force the magic. Strong values and robust policies are important, but they’re not everything. You can build all the ramps and design all the accessible activities and overthink it all to death. From what I can see, though, if you want to attract the magic, you change your thinking, most of all. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

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“Go Play With Your Friends!”

“Meagan, what are you doing over here by yourself?”
The daycare worker stood over three-year-old me as I crouched by a wall, well away from the groups of laughing children. I remember holding a toy giraffe (which I was pretending was a pony), and babbling happily to myself, weaving some far-fetched tale or other to while the hours away. I raised my head reluctantly but obediently; I was loath to interrupt my highly-enjoyable game, but I was a relatively respectful child.
She waited.
“Well? What are you doing?”
“Playing.”
“Put that down and go play with your friends.”
It’s astounding, really, the level of clarity this memory still holds for me. My head is full of fuzzy childhood memories, but this one stands out. If I concentrate, I can still feel the cynical amusement her comment had provoked—an amusement that was distinctly unlike what a child ought to feel.
“I don’t have any friends.”
How could she not know this? Was she not paying attention when kids turned their backs as I approached? Did she miss the very public incident when a toy crate was placed directly in my path in the hopes that I’d trip?
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, go make some then.”
As she walked away, my child self felt absolutely nothing but relief: I could get back to my giraffe—ahem, pony—without further annoyances.
What I find remarkable about this memory is not the underlying theme of social isolation and bullying. Bullying had tapered off almost to nothing when I went to grade school, I was extraordinarily lucky, but daycare was somewhat different. I faced relatively little direct confrontation—I was certainly never abused or put in real danger—but social exclusion was at its height. No, what I always dwell upon is how very unaffected I was by all of it. Kids are all supposed to crave a peer group, but for whatever reason my rejected social overtures didn’t faze me. I didn’t try very hard, and once I realized it was basically futile, I retreated to the safety and endless entertainment that could be found inside my own head. I was aware on some level that this made me different, but I simply don’t remember being bothered in any way by it.
I was not a socially starved child, generally speaking. I was forever pestering my elder sister to play with me, enjoyed the company of adults immensely, and had a huge, welcoming extended family to keep me company during gatherings. If I had the opportunity to play one-on-one with accepting kids my own age, I took it quite contentedly.
Despite this, my introversion seemed to be a source of ongoing anxiety for the adults in my life. Daycare workers, teachers, consultants, and all manner of others concerned themselves with my social development, no doubt worried that a disabled child left to her own devices would morph into a stunted mess. Their fears weren’t entirely unfounded, and my isolation did facilitate certain quirks it took me a bit too long to eliminate, but my intelligence, contentment, and overall growth didn’t feel impeded by my apparently-tragic lack of friends. At least, that’s how I tend to view it.
Frequently labeled antisocial and stubborn, I noticed that my personal preferences were considered partially or wholly irrelevant. This is true for many children, I think, especially when they grow up surrounded by people who fear they’ll turn out wrong, somehow. I don’t know that any adult stopped to consider that maybe, just maybe, Meagan was at peace with not having many friends, and that she’d make them when she was ready. I’m not sure anyone recognized that introversion and antisocial behaviour are worlds apart.
As I grew older, I did begin to amass a very small, very selective group of friends. I didn’t always choose adults’ perceptions of ideal candidates—that is, I did not necessarily gravitate toward popular kids. In fact, I tended to avoid them, and they likewise avoided me unless they thought I’d give them the answers to the homework that had just been assigned. (My studiousness was attractive to just about everyone in my classes over the years, meaning everyone wanted to sit next to me inside but scattered at recess time.) The steady friends I did have were a bit like me: introverted, slightly eccentric, and entirely content with being both. Throughout my childhood, all the way up to middle school, the refrain continued: play with your friends. Be more social. Don’t just stand by that wall all the time. Go play with these girls and those guys and that group over there.
Sometimes, the concern, which I know to be benign and not entirely misguided, got a little out of hand. Fellow students were ordered to play with me (please never do this to any child), and didn’t always hide their resentment over it. Others would allow me into their group briefly, but were just as happy as I was to see me go. Probably, if I’d tried harder, been chattier, been more charming, I’d have made progress, but it all came down to the inescapable facts: they didn’t really want me around, and I was in no mood to waste energy trying to persuade them otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong: I nursed my moments of loneliness, especially as a teenager. Sometimes it seemed as though having more friends would be an express line to a better life, within the confines of school, anyway. When I became a bit more popular in middle school and my social group got larger, I welcomed opportunities to experience new people and activities. When I got to university and was totally alone again, I felt hollow and far more desolate than I’d ever felt as an excluded child.
On the whole, however, I don’t believe my personal growth was much improved by the constant commands to be more outgoing. The social butterfly wings don’t suit me, and they never really have. I applaud the efforts of those who cared for me; I know they were aware of the risks inherent in an isolated, sheltered child, and I see the effects of this isolation in other blind people. Some of them can’t shake a pronounced awkwardness, even as an adult, and I’m grateful to have navigated that particular minefield fairly successfully. I owe much of that to the efforts of the adults closest to me, who were just trying to make me into the best person I could be.
These things aside, I believe my intense introversion, so often judged and found wanting, shielded me from so much of the drama and misery that are youth’s trademark. Other kids were worrying endlessly about who was out and who was in, but I was busy reading yet another book. Other children at daycare were fighting over toys while I sat safely in a corner, knowing my giraffe-pony was mine, all mine. My ambivalence toward my peers wasn’t always an asset, and it definitely got me into trouble a time or two, but it also insulated me from a lot of pain and self-doubt I really didn’t need. Childhood and teenage years are difficult for anyone, but I had separate challenges that meant I would have had precious little time to waste on being lonely anyway. I was way too concerned with a mental illness I did not understand and a disability I didn’t always know how to deal with to cry my eyes out over whether the girls on the tarmac would let me skip rope with them.
Today, I’m still an unapologetic introvert, though with far more friends and a much richer social life. I’m no longer content with total exclusion, and I spend way too much time these days agonizing over things I would have thought silly and worthless as a child. I like my life, and I like who I’ve become.
Still, once in awhile I appeal to that three-year-old I once was. I ask her to lend me her shamelessness and her practicality. I ask her to remind me that I can be my own best friend when the need arises, and that what other people think, well, it doesn’t always have to matter.
Don’t worry, introverts. You’re okay.