This article views inclusion through the lens of Autism conference and events and then draws out she thoughts on what is inclusion.
I speak at quite a few Autism events and conferences. It is quite popular for organisations now to ask Autistic speakers and experts to give presentations at events. This is a great thing and certainly a step in the right direction. when an Autistic speaker was rare and if they were speaking it would most likely be seen as ‘colour and light;’ rather than substance. As well as Autistic speakers, conferences are also attended by other Autistic people with a variety of perspectives – some are parents, some are professionals and some are there to gain insights for their own lives.
A conference is often by nature not very autism friendly and inclusive. There are usually hundreds of attendees, many talks going on in different rooms which may be hard to locate, big, unfamiliar venues, lunch and morning tea options which may or may not be appropriate, and ‘social’ events like cocktail parties which can be decidedly autism unfriendly. Also, a lot of people travel to conferences and I can attest that airports, planes and hotels are often quite stressful environments with sensory overload and stress combined. For Autistic conference delegates, the event may induce stress and even meltdowns. There are usually chill out rooms at Autism specific events but these are not always what they promise to be. I remember one event where I went into the chill out room for a bt of space before my talk and was confronted with about thirty little kids practicing for a dance recital! Needless to say, it wasn’t a very ‘quiet’ quiet room.
Basically what these sorts of experiences tell me is that there is a lot of goodwill around inclusiveness but sometimes it is not realised and becomes disappointing and frustrating for Autistic delegates and speakers. I think often the intent behind the inclusiveness of events is good but it is not followed through very well. I get quite upset when a conference which should have been an engaging an productive event actually turns into a big stress which requires a lot of psychological maintenance afterwards to ensure I am OK.
I had dinner last night with the CEO of an Autism organisation. We had a great conversation. I am going to be a keynote speaker at this organisation’s conference later in the year, The organisation is actively promoting inclusion at the conference. Autistic advocates are involved in all stages of the planning of the conference. Sensory issues are being considered with a view to making sure people don’t struggle to take in the presentations or suffer due to bright lights or off-putting and distressing sounds. The CEO and I discussed the conference and the preference many organsiations have to book Autistic speakers for their events. We agreed that there is a long way to go but that things do appear to be improving,
These considerations around inclusiveness are reflected throughout society. A lot of lip service is paid to respect and diversity but sometimes that does not translate into actual inclusion. Inclusion is a complex beast – different people think it means different things and it can in fact it often does mean different things for different people.
Genuine inclusiveness has at its core respect for the individual who may be ‘different’ or ‘other’. I have a friend who asked me once ‘what is offensive?’ I thought about this for a bit and concluded that what is offensive is what is intended to cause offence. People may say inappropriate things without meaning to offend – I come across that all the time. I see these experiences as are an opportunity to educate the person. Bu there is a huge distance between inclusion and prejudice. It is one thing not to offend but another entirely to include others in decision-making and social life. I sometimes think that some people and organisations see inclusion as simply a lack of prejudice but that seems wrong to me. A lack of prejudice is an absence of something whereas inclusion is a positive, conscious choice. A person or organisation chooses to be inclusive. It is proactive and decisive.
So what we need to do is not just fight prejudice but also promote active inclusion
I will be interested to see how people react to the ‘inclusive’ conference I am speaking at later in the year. I hope it is genuinely inclusive. If it is then it will be a great example for other organisations to follow. If not, I suppose it will be a learning experience. Just as when any idea or activity is put into the world, the experience and time will tell whether it was inclusive or whether it missed the mark. If something doesn’t work, there is an opportunity to put into practice learnings from the failure
An just to conclude, here are some reflections on the concept of inclusion:
- Inclusion is essentially about people form different demographics and backgrounds being included. This relates to decisions around your life, having your viewpoint taken on board, being respected the same way other people are respected and being free from prejudice and hate.
- Inclusion is not only for verbal Autistic people and / or those with a high IQ. Inclusion is for everyone. For people who are non-verbal, a pretty fundamental part of inclusion is getting them a means to communicate. Once someone can communicate their needs, those needs can be respected.
- There are different types of inclusion – in employment, in expressing oneself, in education, relationships and social connections, in housing and accommodation, in civic life and government and many others.
- Inclusion is not just about big picture, social inclusion. Individual relationships and interactions can also be inclusive, or not. Bullying is a form of exclusion which can lead to other kinds of exclusion.
- Everyone deserves to be included. It is not an optional extra but a vital part of being human.
- Every single person has a stake and a responsibility in inclusion. An inclusive society is better for everyone.