This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.

I am going to attempt to document as much of what I learned at Imagine Conference 2011 as I can, starting with the opening keynote. This was my first time attending the conference. In fact, I’m surprised that I had not heard of it before. I can’t say how long the conference itself has been around, but I can tell you that it is put together by the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities and that organization has been around for over 20 years (according to my conversations anyway). I learned a lot, saw a lot of good speakers, and came away with a better perspective of what inclusion can and should mean for all types of people with disabilities.

The opening keynote on Day 1 was the perfect way to begin a conference — of any kind. It was titled “Dwelling in Possibility: the Values, Beliefs & Habits of Inclusive Schools” and was presented by author and speaker Dr. Paula Kluth. I’ll be the first to admit that as someone who has finally finished the “schooling” part of his life and is mostly focused on employment, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by a talk about our nation’s school systems. Boy was I wrong! In hindsight, this talk set the foundation for the rest of the conference.

A vision bigger than our vision

Rightly so, Dr. Kluth began with one of the most prolific civil rights dreamer of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a visionary. In his epic “I have a dream” speech, he described what he saw was possible at a time when such things were very impossible. We have come a long way since then. But, sadly, people with disabilities fell behind in the civil rights movement.

It took a while for children with disabilities to gain access to schools (because why would they need to be educated, right?). Even when children with disabilities got access to schools, they didn’t necessarily get access to educations. Even when I was in grade school in the early 90s, kids with disabilities were often segregated from the rest of the kids and educated at a level deemed appropriate for them. And how was this level determined? Standardized assessments? As it turns out, neither IQ nor behavior patterns, nor any other typical data point is a good indicator of how well a kid with a disability would be included. The most reliable indicator for inclusion is zip code.

Yes, where you live is what determines how well you will be included.

Communities, parents, teachers, and administration who have higher rates of inclusion do so because they see what is possible. Had Anne Sullivan not come along and saw what was possible for Helen Keller, what would the world be like today? And what if she had given up after weeks of seemingly useless teaching? But she had a vision. And she stuck with it until Helen had her defining moment.

The point is that if people are willing to see what is possible for a child with a disability, that child has the potential to go far. The most dangerous assumption is that the student won’t learn anything. That he or she won’t understand. The least dangerous assumption is to believe that the student will understand and will learn. Because the reward will far outweigh the risks. We have to have a vision instead of writing people off. And when we think we have achieved everything that is possible, we need to have an even bigger vision.