Merry early Christmas, readers! (And a merry Christmas to those readers who are on the other side of the International Date Line, where it’s already December 25th). And, to add: just because Christmas is my holiday, I haven’t forgotten my other readers. A happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to all you guys; I think both your holidays rock.
Since it is the holiday season, I’m sure most of us have spent at least some time thinking about gifts we will give or hope to receive. To go along with that, I’ve been thinking about gifts–tangible and otherwise–that we can give to those people in our lives with disabilities. Kathie Snow of disabilityisnatural.com already wrote a great article on this for her site. I’d like to add to it now.
On the 22nd, I found myself Christmas shopping. Perhaps because I’ve had a significant paradigm shift, perhaps because I’m thinking about disability more these days, I noticed three children with disabilities on my trip. Two, I saw in my nearest mall: a boy in a manual wheelchair, and a school-age girl in a stroller (strapped in, as well. I assume mobility issues were one culprit). The other child, I saw in a restaurant. I heard her voice, and also heard what sounded like a significant speech-related disability.
But, unlike I would have BPS (Before Paradigm Shift), I didn’t just see these children. I saw what they were going through, and what they could use. I wondered: was the boy content with a manual wheelchair? I had no doubt he could push himself just fine–if given the chance. And I know there are some great opportunities for wheelchair racing and wheelchair-utilizing sports out there, where manual chairs are used. But I wondered, too: has he ever had the opportunity to use an electric wheelchair? Those tend to give the user more mobility. I’ve looked at them online; true, the cheapest ones cost about $1,000. But in our developed nation, for a lot of people, that’s pocket change. And there are also plenty of charities, like Samaritan’s Purse (quick shout-out to you guys; you rock!) who are more than willing to give these chairs–and the gift of independence–to people in Third World or developing nations, or to those who need finanical help here.
I wondered: did that school-age girl want to be in a stroller? (Personally, I wouldn’t want to be). What other options had her family explored? And even if they had a reason for the stroller–i.e., “She’s combative,” what other options had they explored for that issue? Had the girl with the speech-related disability ever had, or been allowed to try, a communication device? And not just an alphabet board or cards with limited words or pictures, but a device that provided real, complete communication?
So, item one on my Christmas list for people with disabilities: Devices that open the possibility of wider, more adventurous, more normal lives. They’re out there. Stop saying, “It costs too much. They’re not ready. They can’t.” You’d be surprised.
Item two. You might remember, I’m a teacher-in-training. I have three degrees. And BPS, you couldn’t pay me to become a “special education” teacher. I’d seen special ed in my high school and other schools, and it was pathetic. Let me yell that: PATHETIC. Students were isolated in a set of rooms away from the rest of the school, rarely seen in the cafeteria or other social structures, and given “life skills activities” like baking cupcakes or cookies, or washing athletes’ jerseys and jock straps. (Nothing against cupcakes and cookies, but most of us don’t live on them).
But then I found out about this thing called the “inclusive school.” In these schools, “special” rooms–and the concept of “special”–doesn’t exist. Sure, students with disabilities get the accommodations they need. But they’re not over-accommodated, treated like pets, or isolated. And they learn right along with peers who don’t have disabilities. Plus, when I say “learn,” I mean “LEARN.” A disability does not relegate these kids to a day of fill-in-the-blank worksheets. I’m making it a personal goal to learn more about inclusive education. I still want to work with “regular” or “honors” curriculums, because those are the classrooms I know best. But wherever students with disabilities need or want a real education, I’m gonna be there.
Item two: Learning opportunities for myself about real inclusion, and REAL educations for all students.
Item three: Gifts and experiences that people with disabilities really want. I’ll give you one of my famous examples. During college, a friend of mine from church taught me to cook. I still need help with some cooking things for now; for instance, I don’t trust myself yet around heavy cooking materials and a stove. Bad combination. But for Christmas that year, one of my smaller gifts was an apron–because my family respected my cooking experience.
The same is true for the person with dyslexia who really wants an opportunity to read or listen to real books (not those “easy readers” special ed often relies on). The person in a wheelchair who really wants a soccer or basketball, or other sports or physical equipment–so he or she can play real sports. The person with a mental disability or illness who wants a gift that makes him or her feel just as intellectually or emotionally capable as anyone else–and speaks to his or her real age, not “mental age.”
And item four. This is my favorite. I want educators, administrators, parents, guardians, and others without disabilities to learn to think outside their comfortable “disability box.” Let me show you what happens when they don’t–and what could happen if they really, honestly would.
I hated physical education in school. Absolutely despised it. Why?
Because in elementary school, the teacher either let me just stand there during games or urged me to, “Go faster, speed up, do better.” The one time I tried to tell her I was doing the best I could, she said, “That is disrespectful.”
I’ll hold for the sardonic laugh.
Because in middle school, our PE curriculum often revolved around “mass activities” or sports. For those, I was usually sent out in the hall with another kid (usually a kid labeled “special”), to do babyish “skill” activities like hitting a ball off a cone, or balancing a tennis ball on an oversized net. Failing that, I was asked to be the scorekeeper or referee. (Translation: “Just stand there; you can’t do anything.”) In addition, this message of learned helplessness–of “can’t”–got into my head so that even if I was asked to play something for real, I didn’t want to. I knew I’d do it wrong and be embarrassed.
High school was more of the same. So as you can imagine, when I got to college and heard there was a PE requirement for all students, my first thought was, “Oh, CRAP.”
But then I learned I had options. I could sign up for Personal Fitness–which meant I chose my own physical activities and set my own pace. I was able to use my own treadmill and other equipment at home, or in the school gym. I learned to enjoy fitness, and added to the already over-3o-pound weight loss I began the summer before college. I was also able to take–and do well in–a college aerobics class. I could do a lot of the moves, and those I couldn’t, I modified for myself–without a teacher standing next to me and trying to correct me.
I did yoga, Pilates, and took cardio classes in grad school. I go to the gym every day and use the equipment I can well (such as an indoor track). I’m at an ideal weight and enjoy fitness now.
Now, what would’ve happened if my PE teachers had thought outside their box? If they’d said, “What do you like to do with your body?” If they’d asked for my input when writing “fitness goals?”
They might have discovered I love moving to music. They might have discovered I like dancing of any kind, and can do a mean version of modified jump rope. (Sure, it involves placing the rope on the ground and jumping over it, but I can clear that thing). They might have discovered I wanted to learn more about cultural movement, like salsa or ballet or samba. They might have suggested the school invest in gym equipment that didn’t scare the heck out of me because of a lack of depth perception. They might have discovered that, without their learned helplessness, reprimands, and “goals,” I might’ve wanted to try real athlecticism.
So, PE teachers–and other teachers–next time you see that student with a disability and turn to a solution that smacks of, “We’ve always done it like this” or “The school doesn’t have this, so unless the parents provide it, we won’t do it,” step back and reconsider how disabling those attitudes are.
You just might make someone’s day.