Disability 101: How Disability-Based Education Would Greatly Help Our School Systems

Hi readers,

I’ve returned from hiatus to write one more March post. The title might make you think, “duh,” but hear me out.

I was inspired to write this post after a tremendously uplifting opportunity on my Florida vacation. I was visiting cousins, and they weren’t on spring break yet. One of those cousins teaches kindergarten at a private Christian K-12 school. I spent two days helping out in her class. I was also offered to give my testimony–how I became a Christian, how disability has impacted my spirituality, and why I am still a Christian despite it–during the school’s chapel service and to the affiliated church’s youth group.

I was only given 10 minutes in chapel due to the schedule and the presence of little kids who can’t sit still through a lot. Youth group was longer and gave me time for a Q&A session. Most of the questions were ones I get often–how does CP specifically affect you, have you ever been bullied because of it, and so forth. But one of the youngest kids raised his hand and asked, “Do you still have cerebral palsy?”

I explained I will always have CP because there is no cure yet, and I’m okay with that. It occurred to me, though–this kid did not even know the basic facts of CP, such as that it is not curable. Yet he, like all his group-mates, goes to school with students who have disabilities. It occurred to me: how many students are going to school with classmates who have disabilities, and yet have little to no basic knowledge of what the disabilities are and how to interact with those kids as peers, not just “special buddies?”

Now, we’ve talked about the second half of that question a lot. PWDs deserve to be interacted with as people, period. But I will acknowledge that it can be hard. It’s hard for adults, and we’re supposed to know better. Imagine being a kid–a kindergartner, a ten-year-old, a twelve-year-old. You see a classmate with suspected autism have a floor display because your teacher took away the pencil box he was playing with instead of listening to directions. You want to go up to your classmate with CP and ask him or her to play–but what if they can’t? You want to ask your classmate in a wheelchair or with a hearing aid if he or she needs help, but what if they get offended? Imagine being a kid who’s been taught only about the worst-case scenarios of these and other disabilities. You’d be a little scared of that classmate, yes? Especially if they were already in a segregated environment and the teachers and administrators didn’t encourage interaction.

See, that’s where education comes in. You are what you learn, and kids will respond to what we as adults teach them. So we have to teach them about disabilities the way we do about race, religion, and other differences. The problem is, teachers in public and private schools alike get cheated out of these teaching opportunities because of standardized testing, tight schedules, budget constraints, and the like. So what are some basic things teachers and other adults can do to teach about disabilities? Here are a few basic tips:

  • As much as possible, let the students with disabilities be the teachers. If you see your class has questions, invite them to be asked. Keep question and answer times on the child’s level, and look for natural opportunities to use them. For example, if you’re a teacher and know some of your students will have disabilities before school starts, give the class a heads-up about what the disabilities look like and what questions are appropriate.
  • Encourage your students with disabilities to interact as much as possible with TAB peers. Vice-versa works, too. Strive for mixed groups of varying ability levels, as much as your curriculum allows.
  • Teach students the basics of some common disabilities: CP, MS, Down Syndrome, autism, and so on. Emphasize the individuality of every student with a disability. Explain what a stereotype is (for little kids, what constitutes disrespect), and make clear you will not tolerate it. If you don’t know your disability basics, educate yourself first. Google is your friend. 🙂
  • Teach your students how to respond if the disability disrupts class–say, if a classmate with epilepsy has a seizure. Emphasize treating the student with calmness and respect. Explain that if the student is conscious and cognizant, you should respond to his or her specific requests for help–or no help. For little kids, emphasize that the teacher or other adults should be the primary ones to handle seizures, tantrums, and so forth.
  • You may choose to assign a buddy that the PWD trusts to help with his or her needs. This is fine and can lead to real, deep friendships. But make sure the PWD has other friends and opportunities to make them. Don’t put the buddy in the position of acting like a miniature adult, or use him or her as a way to neglect your responsibilities to a student who needs you, sometimes more than the others.
  • If your students with disabilities are in a self-contained environment, still encourage interaction in “public” spaces–the cafeteria, the playground, electives. Teach students the basics of interaction: asking and remembering the person’s name, talking directly to the person rather than an aide or caregiver, focusing on topics other than disability. Special ed teachers can be allies here.

Disability is a difference, and it’s something we should all educate ourselves more about. But when you’re educating yourself or your students, remember that everyone in your school is on the same team. The team works and plays much better together.

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