The User’s Guide To Being An Inclusive Educator
As a student with severe cerebral palsy, I have a lifetime of experience learning the ins and outs of navigating a mainstream school. I’ve been mainstreamed since nursery school, and now as a senior in college, I have met a full spectrum of different teachers, and I’ve had a lot of time to consider the little things that have separated the teachers who practice mandated inclusion from those who go out of their way to be extra inclusive and understand the experience of students with disabilities. Obviously, everyone’s situation is a little different, and I’m speaking from my perspective as a woman with cerebral palsy. But I hope these ideas will be able to guide many people with disabilities and their teachers in creating an environment that goes beyond basic access.
Be mindful that many physical disabilities affect other parts of the body besides the legs.
Although my wheelchair is the most obvious indicator of my disability, it affects all four limbs, and in a lot of ways, the upper limb deficits present more challenges in the classroom. In summary: FINE MOTOR SKILLS. Cutting, tying, crafting, and other activities that others take for granted are extremely difficult, if not impossible for me. Avoid class activities that are high motor intensity whenever possible, as they are frustrating, isolating, and exhausting for people with certain kinds of disabilities. Furthermore, they are not an accurate measure of classroom success for people with motor impairments. For the sake of letting all students work together, try to steer clear of these assignments. If they are definitely necessary, create an alternative motor friendly assignment for the disabled student.
Group projects can be devil if they are not created with access in mind.
Group projects always made me break into a cold sweat. The scenario usually looked something like this: teacher announces a “pick your own group” group project. All the students bolt out of their seats, stepping over me, and by the time I move, all the groups are already formed. To smooth things out for people with mobility issues, I would suggest the instructor randomly assign groups. This will also prevent exclusion and frustration for all students, as “pick your own group” scenarios are also hell for people who may struggle on the social totem pole.
Outside of the classroom activities may pose extra inconvenience for people with severe disabilities. Either avoid them or be flexible with times.
If an outside of the classroom activity at a different time/place is absolutely necessary, this should be obvious, but just to reiterate: make sure the location is accessible. I have a very complicated schedule with my personal assistants (caretakers), so it is not easy for me to go places for school outside of my regular schedule. If something outside of the ordinary is necessary, provide lots of notice so people with disabilities can have plenty of time to arrange PAs and transportation (some of us can’t drive, rely on public transit or our family vans, which can’t be set up at the drop of the hat.)
For long class activities, build in breaks.
My disability causes muscle fatigue, and it takes me a bunch more energy to do regular tasks, like using my hands, sitting up, and writing. Many people with disabilities budget energy differently, and marathon activities drain us. If breaks are naturally built into the class, it’s very helpful to people with fatigue issues without isolating them from the rest of the class. Furthermore, it takes people with some disabilities longer to go to the bathroom, so breaks are appreciated.
Keep in mind that not everyone can jet off to the bathroom and be back in two minutes.
Things take us longer, so going to the bathroom may be more of an event for us than a non-disabled person. Some of us need personal care assistance in the bathroom, which tacks on extra time as well. Be patient and aware of this. Also keep in mind that some people with CP have muscle issues, and our bladders like to play tricks on us. Translation: not so great at holding it, so if I need to pee at an inconvenient time, please be understanding unless you are willing to clean up my pee. Having a classroom near an accessible bathroom is also a plus.
Visual perceptual issues are a thing.
It may not be obvious, but visual perception difficulties are a big part of CP, and some other disabilities. Graphs, overlapping shapes, small print, or “imagine what this would look like if it was rotated” things make me all fuzzy. This doesn’t mean I’m lazy or not smart, it means my eyes need to work harder to do simple things. Offer graphing assistance (or an alternative to graphs)! Be creative about other ways to evaluate a student. Or for example… read the points to the student and ask him or her to comment on the trend.
If the student has an aide, talk to the student, not the aide.
Unless otherwise noted, an aide is supposed to be a neutral extension of the student, basically acting like one’s limbs. If you have a question about the student, ask him or her. Recognize the student as a separate entity, and allow him/her to function as independently as possible. Aide no-nos: Asking where the aide is if he/she leaves for two seconds, grouping the student and the aide like one person.
The one to one aide is not the answer to all access issues.
If a student is struggling with a task in class, don’t assume that poof… the answer is a 1:1 aide. Having a full time aide can be restrictive to social development and learning particular life skills, even if the aide is an awesome person. Think first. How can the class support the person as a group so that he/she can possibly function without a 1:1? Making the whole community part of the solution rather than just sticking an aide on the person benefits everyone. For example, in high school, peers took turns moving my desks so I could be in the classroom sans aide. For lab groups, rather than automatically summoning an aide, my teachers let other members do the motor intensive tasks, while I did the calculations.
If I do have an aide, you can still help me in small ways.
Just because a student has an aide doesn’t make his/her peers immune from doing a helpful deed. You can still hold the door, pick up a pencil, or turn a page. These things are helpful things you should do for anyone as a human being, regardless of disability. Good deeds don’t require special training!
Make sure your field trips are accessible.
If you’re going to do a field trip, make sure it is accessible and that all students are made to feel welcome, especially if it’s for course credit. If you need guidance, ask. Don’t make students with disabilities feel like a burden. A teacher in my past, who shall remain nameless, once told me I couldn’t go on the trip “because it would just be too much work”. Hint hint: That’s illegal.
If a student with a disability is late, don’t assume it’s for lack of effort.
People with disabilities can be slackers like everyone else but don’t make any assumptions if we run late. Maybe our PAs were late, maybe our buses were late, maybe we really had to pee. Maybe a tire fell off the wheelchair on the way to class. Yes. It has happened. And in spite of photo proof, I STILL had to get a note from my case manager.
We know ourselves. If we can’t do something because of our disabilities, it’s not a simple matter of trying harder.
Respect our knowledge of our own needs, and remember that no one is overjoyed to tell you that they cannot write for long periods of time or fold a piece of paper. A (nameless) teacher once said in front of the whole class that I wasn’t writing my own notes because I didn’t try. Ignorant and insulting to say the least. If you do have a concern, ask in private.
Don’t tell us what to call ourselves.
Even if you read that “special needs” is today’s preferred term in a magazine, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Everyone has a different favorite. I personally prefer disabled, but opinions vary.
Don’t treat accommodations like unfair advantages.
Unfortunately, difficult teachers in the past have been difficult or flat out non-compliant with accommodations because they perceive them as unfair. Documented accommodations are the law. Period. And an accommodation does not give an advantage, it levels the playing field. For example, giving me a copy of notes doesn’t give me an advantage, it compensates for the fact that it’s hard for me to keep up with writing. If I didn’t have the notes, I would be at a disadvantage, because other people can write easily.
Electronic notes from the teacher are awesome.
I think this is true for all students, not just those with disabilities, because it allows them to listen rather than focus on copying notes. Also, if all students get notes, the student with a disability is not separated as a case of “special needs”. It also avoids the need to deal with unreliable student notetakers, crappy carbon paper, and other unpleasant things. Some teachers worry that giving notes will encourage goofing off, but I have found it allows for discussion rather than a race to write notes.
Make your media accessible to all.
Use captions on videos, not only for visually impaired folks, but for all people who may have trouble seeing the board. Describe images with a caption whenever you can.
Make your Powerpoints accessible
Use large font, simple language, and an easy to read format. Describe images. Organize info in bullets and avoid loud noises, sudden motions, and flashing lights. Avoid fancy fonts.
If you really don’t want to give out notes, allow a student notetaker to type notes in class and email them to the disabled student.
This eliminates the need for crappy carbon paper, a true artifact from the time of the dinosaurs, and makes it possible to retrieve and read notes easily.
Familiarize yourself with disability resources and the disability services staff.
As classrooms become more diverse, more students with disabilities will be in the classroom and they deserve a competent staff. We have dealt with our fair share of cluelessness, and having someone who can help and offer support is invaluable. It is so comforting to have someone around who has an idea about our lives after many years of “I don’t knows”. If you can point someone to a helpful service, support, or person it may change a life.
If you’re going to teach diversity, include disability in the talk.
Diversity is a buzzword in education, and despite the popularity of diversity seminars, disability is usually treated like the ugly stepsister of social justice. We’re here too. Learn about our lives! Kids deserve to recognize Ed Roberts as readily as Martin Luther King Jr. Talking about disability as diversity rather than a problem paves the way for a more accepting world. Go beyond the Welcome poster with the stick figure wheelchair kid. I dare you.
If a wheelchair- using student has a different type of desk, don’t isolate his or her desk from others.
I always stayed in my wheelchair and used a table rather than a desk with the chair attached. Sometimes, a teacher unintentionally placed my desk eons away from the others, creating a contradictory inclusion island. In the interest of being in the same universe as others, please place it near the others, with plenty of space to move. Otherwise, it’s like “HOW’S THE WEATHER OVER THERE?”
Don’t use the wheelchair, accessible desk, or other piece of equipment to store things.
I can’t tell you how many times I arrived in my classroom to find a huge stack of papers or other assorted crap all over my desk. A person sits here. Respect that.
Avoid a patronizing tone or treating a disabled student as younger than their age.
Do I need to explain? I hope not.
If you are having an event with food, make sure students with disabilities can access it.
Too many times, I got trampled over, and when the dust settled, the cupcakes were gone. Offer help getting food or make it easy to reach. If you have a disabled student, offer to help with cutting the food, quietly, not as a loud announcement that creates unnecessary attention. Bring straws. Some people with disabilities need them to drink from a cup.
Avoid Intentional or Unintentional Ableist Comments
Ableism= prejudice or discrimination on the basis of disability
There are the obvious ones. Don’t use “retarded” as an insult. Don’t mock people with disabilities. Then, there are the subtle ones. I was recently in a class, and the activity was a team exercise in which one person had to tie a shoelace blindfolded, and the other had to instruct. I could not do either, as I am unable to tie shoes and don’t have the motor planning skills to dictate a physical act I’ve never done. Throughout the activity, the instructor made repeated comments about “how everyone can tie a shoe!” while condescendingly saying that this should be easy unless we wear Velcro shoes. We were then encouraged to “pretend we were 6 and couldn’t tie shoes!” First of all, sweeping statements with “everyone” are usually dangerous. Secondly, the comments infantilize people with motor deficits. All people come from different places, and may struggle with things you know nothing about. Think before you speak.
When considering safety procedures, think about students with disabilities.
When our schoolmates get directions on how to escape a flaming building, we’d like to be clued in too. A vague “we’ll find a way” just causes me to picture myself praying fervently as the desks go up in flames. Putting s’more supplies in the drawer and saying a Hail Mary won’t cut it. If you need guidance, consult disability services & the student.
Don’t be paranoid.
It might be new to have a student with a disability, but don’t be over the top nervous. We’re not made of glass.
Trite Wheelchair Jokes Get Old Really Quickly
If I had a dollar for every “hey speedy”, “are you racing?” or awkward “beep beep” from over the years, I’d be rich. I love disability humor, but I could do without cheesy wheelchair jokes. Keep it clever & tasteful if you are going to joke. PS: I am not “racing” every time I roll beside a friend. Sometimes, I just want to take a stroll.
Be Aware Of Testing Accommodation Procedures
Some students need their test sent to the testing accommodation center. Please do it in a timely manner and make sure the paper does not get lost. There’s nothing worse than a test you worked hard on getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Try to grade the tests from the testing accommodation group as quickly as the others. It was always a let down to hear: “We graded ALL the tests! Except yours!”
Alternative Assignment Options for Students with Disabilities Can Be Helpful
If a project involves a lot of motor tasks, drawing, cutting, or craftiness, it’s probably not a good way to evaluate a person with CP. Offer an assignment of equal difficulty using a different measure of achievement. I can say from experience that forcing me to make a papier maché jellyfish or draw pictures just created sweat, tears, and a lot of work for my parents, who often had to carry out fine motor tasks while I dictated. Please, for the sake of my mom and I not throwing poster paper and whimsical decorative stickers at one another, create something I can do without help. I assure you it will be a much better measure of my skills.
Offer Help, But Don’t Force It
An offer for help is always welcome, but if I say “no,” respect the answer. Help without consent is the opposite of helpful.
Don’t Lower Your Expectations for Us Just Because We Have A Disability
Low expectations are the enemy and the source of a great deal of ableism in the world. We have disabilities, but we are bright and driven. We want work that is fair and accessible, but equally challenging. Expect greatness from us as you would with any other student.
Remember That Having a Disability Can Be Exhausting.
I love my life, but having CP is tiring. Between coaxing my rebellious muscles into action, managing my PAs, setting up my buses, and doing regular everyday stuff, I have a lot to juggle. I don’t want pity, just understanding, and the awareness that I use energy much differently than others. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, CPers use 5x the amount of energy than those without CP doing tasks such as moving about. If I look a little slouchy or glazed over, no disrespect intended. I’m just tired, so think before you comment that I must be staying up too late. In fact, because I have a PA, I can tell you my bedtime from now to December. No joke.
All People With Disabilities Are Not Interchangeable.
Just because you had so & so in a wheelchair five years ago doesn’t mean everything will apply to the next student. Get to know us. And even though it will make me laugh, try not to call me by the name of the other wheelie in the school. We don’t all look alike!
Meet the Startle Reflex
A heightened startle reflex or a moro reflex is common in cerebral palsy, in response to lights, sounds, and sudden motions, even smells. Startling may look funny, but it can actually lead to painful spasms, so try to steer of triggers, and please don’t cause a startle on purpose for comic relief. I once was holding an iced tea in a combat movie, and all I can say is thank god the seat in front of me was empty. Otherwise, the person may have needed a poncho.
Remember That Diverse Classrooms Are Awesome Classrooms
Having people of all kids in your class will benefit you & them. Even if you do not have a disabled student right now, some of these ideas are great for universal access in general, and will make inclusion a natural presence instead of a “special set up” for a specific person, and you will be prepared to help every student.
These are just suggestions, and by no means do I intend to make sweeping statements about everyone’s needs. However, I think these suggestions could help us to make a better school environment. Unfortunately, people’s ignorance about disability is often excused based on the logic that “they didn’t know” but now is the time that we must challenge our educators to find out. Just like in other minority groups, our needs and experiences with discrimination are real, and we deserve all the help we can get in changing our culture. All of my teachers who opened their minds, tried harder, and thought more deeply made the rocky road of being the first generation of mainstreamers worth it, and literally gave me a reason to come to school. Never underestimate the difference you can make. Thank you.