In a gathering hosted by the Children Guild Foundation, Buffalo State University Exceptional Education Department, and Lift Off, the anticipation of a collaborative effort to address diverse community needs as they relate to our most vulnerable population was palpable. Community leaders, champions for our youngest children and their families, convened with the hope of addressing the diverse needs of children and families in Western New York. Yet, what transpired was a disheartening revelation — a space tainted by ableism, indifference, and a glaring lack of diversity.

Breaking Through Barriers: Lived Experiences as Catalysts for Change
My journey navigating my current diagnosis of ADHD, General Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and PTSD isn’t just an introduction; it’s the very essence of my lived experience. Despite years of therapy, substantial costs, and a myriad of medications, my dynamic disability persists. In the pursuit to provide my disabled perspective, skepticism met my narrative, diminishing my ongoing struggles. This dismissal isn’t a mere personal affront; it’s a stark example of ableism — a system that devalues and marginalizes based on abilities, perpetuating exclusionary norms and hindering the collective push for a more inclusive society. Breaking free from this ableist pattern is essential for genuine change.

Invalidation of Lived Experience and the Privilege Paradox
As I shared my personal experiences as a disabled person, the dismissal I faced transcended mere disagreement. When advocating for the neurodivergent community and questioning interventions like ABA, the privilege paradox surfaced.

In self-advocacy, where my experiences should matter most, those with power ignored my voice, complicating discussions about more significant issues, such as the barriers we all face.

Delving into challenges and barriers, particularly the requirement for specific classes to obtain NYS teaching certification, I shared my experience, highlighting the necessity despite years of experience in the field and an out-of-state A.A.S. in Early Childhood Education with a concentration on Infants and Toddlers. I studied under professors mentored directly by Early Childhood greats such as Magda Gerber and Vivian Paley. The class I was expected to take was entitled, “Introduction to Early Childhood Education.” The response I received from BSU representation was “That’s the state.” This dismissive response underscored the systemic nature of the problem.

This privilege paradox maintains the status quo, ignoring the daily struggles faced by people like me. Even being part of this conversation, with my concerns pushed aside, reveals that the experiences of disabled people are not valued. It’s not just about this one conversation; it’s a pattern that suggests our experiences don’t matter, hindering real change.

When we talk about the invalidation of lived experiences, it’s not merely a disagreement; it’s a way of keeping things the same, pushing voices like mine away. This privilege paradox holds us back from breaking down barriers tied to more significant systemic issues that need attention.

The Privilege of Influence: A Closer Look at High Ed’s Role
Dr. Kathy Doody, leading the Exceptional Education Department at Buffalo State University, wields significant influence in shaping educational practices in Western New York. Yet, the motivations behind championing specific curricula and programming within the department raise important inquiries, casting doubt on their commitment to challenging conventional norms.

The university’s unwavering dedication to a behaviorally based pedagogy is evident in the Exceptional Education Department’s curriculum and programming, prominently featuring ABA classes and programming.

In a region already saturated with the behavioral model, it becomes crucial to highlight the peril of such singularity in educational approaches. The role of the Department Head of Exceptional Education at Buffalo State University should transcend perpetuating this antiquated model; it should involve challenging its dominance and advocating for diverse choices in educating our children in Western New York.

The ramifications of an exclusive emphasis on the behavioral model extend to health equity and access, risking the homogenization of education and neglecting the distinctive needs and strengths of neurodivergent individuals. Rooted in a deficit lens, the behavioral model may reinforce harmful stereotypes and stigmas, obstructing the authentic inclusion of diverse perspectives in education.
Furthermore, this model disregards the principles of neurodiversity, asserting that neurological differences are natural variations of the human brain. Recognizing neurodiversity involves embracing the idea that diverse minds contribute to the richness of our society. Confining education within the boundaries of a singular model undermines the essence of neurodiversity, impeding the potential for genuine inclusion and understanding.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that new research and the voices of those with lived experience advocate for presumed competence, agency, choice, and respect. They reject the notion that they are broken and need fixing—an inherent belief perpetuated by the behavioral and medical models. Dr. Doody, in her influential position, has the opportunity and responsibility to challenge these antiquated norms and champion an educational landscape that values and respects the unique strengths of every individual.

A Lack of Direct Impact and the Insult of Exclusion
As an educator and a small disabled business owner, it became glaringly apparent that very few individuals in the room were currently working directly with children and families. In addition, there was no representation from parents or the disabled community.

The exclusion of parents and disabled individuals from the outset is not only insulting but fundamentally flawed. The principle of “nothing about us without us” holds profound significance; their voices should have been integral to shaping decisions right from the start.

It’s unjust to expect individuals like me to bear the weight of exclusion, especially when these encounters inflict profound trauma. Fostering a sense of belonging and community is crucial, as it not only recognizes the diverse voices present but also contributes to decisions that genuinely reflect the needs of those directly affected. Excluding these voices, on the other hand, perpetuates a cycle of alienation and impedes the creation of an inclusive and supportive community.

Navigating Trauma: A Personal Reflection
Due to my disabilities, these spaces can be exceptionally traumatizing. Dismissals, invalidations, and recurring conversations with little change reinforce emotional tolls. My formal diagnoses affect how I move through the world, turning encounters into emotionally charged battlegrounds.

My fight is not just personal; it is a commitment to dismantling barriers for those whose voices are often marginalized and overlooked. In navigating my own lived experience and trauma, I aim to amplify the voices of others who face similar struggles, fostering empathy and understanding in spaces that desperately need it. True inclusion demands acknowledging diverse voices and respecting the vulnerability it takes to share lived experiences.

Diversity of Thought: The Missing Piece for Lasting Change
In reflecting on decades of unyielding conversations, the noticeable absence of diverse perspectives emerges as a critical hindrance to progress. Diversity of thought encompasses a spectrum of ideas, experiences, and viewpoints that challenge conventional norms, fostering innovation and inclusivity. Without this essential element, systemic issues persist and, in many cases, are perpetuated.
The danger lies in the stagnation of systems that have gone untouched for years due to a lack of varied perspectives. Homogeneity in thought stifles progress, allowing outdated practices and discriminatory norms to persist unchallenged. This absence not only inhibits growth but also reinforces systemic issues deeply rooted in the foundations of various institutions, such as Higher Education.
At the heart of systemic problems is the tendency to uphold established norms without considering alternative viewpoints. The exclusion of diverse voices in decision-making processes has long-lasting consequences, as policies and practices are crafted without a full understanding of their impact on marginalized communities. This perpetuates cycles of inequality, discrimination, and exclusion.
For true transformation, we need a mosaic of ideas that challenge the status quo, envision new possibilities, and question established norms. Without this diversity of thought, systems remain resistant to change, impeding progress and contributing to the marginalization of certain groups. Embracing a variety of perspectives is not merely an idealistic aspiration; it is a necessary step toward dismantling systemic issues and fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

Call to Action and Change:
True inclusion goes beyond superficial diversity; it demands active involvement from those directly affected. Advocate for representation that genuinely reflects our diverse community and commit to dismantling outdated norms. It’s time for decisive action, not empty words. Families, educators, and individuals must join forces against systemic barriers, ableism, and dismissive attitudes that perpetuate exclusion.

For instance, in Western New York, this could mean pushing for policies that prioritize inclusive education, ensuring that diverse voices, including disabled individuals and parents, play a pivotal role in shaping decisions about our education system.

It’s about breaking down the existing barriers and fostering an environment where every person, regardless of ability, is not just acknowledged but actively included in the dialogue and decision-making processes.

Let’s make it a priority to have disabled individuals at every table, including the board of every agency serving disabled people, ensuring their perspectives guide policies and practices. Our collective strength will pave the way for substantial, lasting change right here in our community.

Closing Thoughts:
Speaking truth to power is the first step towards dismantling ableism and fostering true belonging. In yesterday’s room filled with community leaders, my identity as a disabled individual and advocate was on the line. We need to recognize that true inclusion is more than just a buzzword – it’s a commitment to dismantling barriers, embracing diversity of thought, and ensuring that every voice, especially those with lived experiences, is not just heard but valued.
It is in our collective voices that we will build a future where everyone truly belongs. This requires challenging not just the dismissive attitudes within these spaces but also the very structures that perpetuate systemic issues. The call to action is not just for change in rhetoric but for tangible shifts that include diverse voices, acknowledge lived experiences, and actively work towards dismantling the status quo.

As I reflect on my experience at the meeting, I am confronted not only with the personal invalidation of my lived experiences but also with the broader privilege paradox that impedes progress. The dismissal of my concerns, rooted in a well-established system, highlights the entrenched challenges faced by disabled individuals within the framework of decision-making.

Moreover, the setting of the meeting itself, the Saturn Club, adds another layer to the discussion. A private social club with exclusive membership criteria, it underscores the elitism that often accompanies such gatherings. The symbolism of a private club hosting discussions about inclusivity and accessibility is stark. It is a reminder that the conversations about dismantling barriers are often held in spaces that reinforce exclusivity.

In contrast to the opulent setting of the Saturn Club, the critical work essential for breaking down barriers and fostering genuine inclusion unfolded beyond its walls. While I spent two hours within, sipping coffee and eating a Danish, it was the subsequent half-hour standing in the biting cold of a Buffalo December that truly defined the impactful work. Alongside an incredible colleague, we engaged in discussions that should have resonated within those exclusive walls.

Moving forward, we must challenge not only the dismissive attitudes within these spaces but also the very structures that perpetuate systemic issues. The call to action is not just for change in rhetoric but for tangible shifts that include diverse voices, acknowledge lived experiences, and actively work towards dismantling the status quo. Let this be a calling in for genuine inclusivity, where the voices of all individuals, regardless of ability, are not just heard but valued and prioritized.

I must express profound gratitude to Lift Off for the brave and generous invitation extended to Rooted Beginnings, LLC. Lift Off’s awareness of the vital importance of intentionally diversifying voices at the table is something we should all strive for not only in the Early Childhood Community but across Western New York.

Inviting Rooted Beginnings, LLC was more than a gesture; it marked a deliberate move towards inclusivity, recognizing that the richness of thought from diverse experiences is vital for navigating our shared journey. This intentional act of inclusion sets the stage for a dialogue that is not only impactful but resonates with the potential to shape a more inclusive, equitable, and transformative future together.