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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Special Topic / Understanding Disabilities

Firsthand experience teaches students valuable lessons about disabilities.

"You're blind."
"You're orthopedically impaired. Never mind, we'll discuss it in a moment."
"You're mute."
"You're in a wheelchair."
One by one, as they enter the classroom, I strike down my students with various afflictions. This must be the ultimate in teacher omnipotence. Actually, I am randomly assigning disabilities to my 7th grade language arts class. For this class period, they will have to role-play their assignments, relying on their own ingenuity—and occasionally the assistance of others—to get through the class. I made minimal preparations the day before, mentioning only briefly that we would begin a unit on disabilities and to come to class dressed casually.
Once the students are seated, I quickly take attendance while they take out their daily journals and write responses to the following questions: "How many relatives, friends, or neighbors do you know who have a disability? If none, think of the numbers of such individuals you have seen in the mall lately. What kind(s) of disabilities did you see? How do the disabled make up for their disability?" Students regularly do five-minute writing exercises—bell work with a purpose.
I then take a quick hand count of positive responses from each category. About 25 percent of the students have relatives with disabilities. Another 15 percent have friends or neighbors who have disabilities. Still another 10 to 35 percent have observed the disabled while shopping. I generally make some comments about how large the disabled population actually is, although often treated as invisible. I point out that not all individuals are challenged from birth but may acquire disabilities through trauma. This is a natural lead-in to discuss, or even act out, how many people react—or don't react—when they encounter the physically or mentally challenged in public. Pretending that I am at the mall, I model avoidance, staring, and laughing and exhibit other common responses that I have noticed. The student polling, discussion, and modeling take about 10 minutes. The students are now primed for their activity.
I hand out a box of soft cloths, each about 3 to 4 inches wide and 30 to 36 inches long. The students who are designated as blind tie the cloths around their eyes. Those who are now mute tie the cloths around their mouths. The physically impaired students tie their dominant arms at the wrist and then other students assist in tying the cloth behind the impaired students' backs. The wheelchair-bound students tie their feet together and then to the desk legs. Obviously, these approaches must be modified to accommodate various classroom environments. (Don't assign deafness. I did that the first year and got the obvious retort: "I can't hear you so I can't follow instructions. Write them down.") A student volunteer videotapes these preparations. The videotape helps me assign cooperation and participation points later and has become a high point for the students to review their approaches to this unit, especially when they prepare for student-led conferences with their parents or guardians at the end of the year. This setting-up exercise takes about five minutes.

The Assignment

The class is now ready to learn about the assignment. First, I present my guidelines:Each student is expected to participate, to cooperate, and to undertake today's lesson. No exceptions. If you have a problem, figure it out. If you can't do it yourself, seek assistance. If it's too hard or cumbersome, work together.I now present on an overhead projector or write on the board the vocabulary for the lesson, and then I explain the library research requirements. Vocabulary study guide sheets are on the front table. I have already written the research requirements on both the front and rear boards. I walk around the classroom. It is a decidedly inhospitable environment for the disabled.
A blind student raises her hand to complain that she obviously can't see the board and couldn't write down the assignment anyway. I ask whether anyone can write the assignment for her. A mute boy next to her nods his head, and I relay the agreement to her. A boy in a wheelchair complains that he needs a vocabulary study guide from the front table, but he can't roll his wheelchair there. "Not only doesn't the desk have wheels, but the aisles are much too narrow!" he points out. One student reaches, just barely, the pile of study guides and starts to pass them from desk to desk. Another student has a question, but she's mute and resorts to writing me a note, to which I respond.
Those students who don't want to play along are generally chastised by others who have moved readily into the spirit of the lesson. One or two at first, and then in growing numbers, the students figure out their new situations. They must be innovative. They must adjust. They must modify. They must compensate for their disability and the environment. They must cooperate.
I allow this climate to develop for about 15 minutes or until most of the students get the hang of sharing and caring. I have about 20 minutes left. I now begin what I call Socratic urging by asking some open-ended questions: "What is a disability?" "How do you feel when your expectations aren't met?" "What does it mean to compensate?" Whether their answers are oral or submitted in notes, the deep level of understanding and empathy that these 12- and 13-year-olds develop in so short a time amazes me. I try to incorporate the new vocabulary into this discussion, using examples from the research outline on the board.
I inform the students that for the next two days they will be in collaborative groups conducting research, in the library and on the Internet, into topics related to disabilities. This introduction to the unit is about all we can get to in 55 minutes. I collect the cloths from the students and dismiss them at the bell. I have often overheard interesting comments from departing students: "Now I know how my cousin feels," or "I'll never stare at her in the store again." I judge the success of this brief encounter by the number of complaints that I get from students who say that they can't function routinely in their other classes for the rest of the day. At first I was concerned that this difficulty just reflected the novelty of the exercise, but when I inquire why, students say, "I just got the hang of writing with my left hand," or "I found myself listening more carefully in class." Yes, they are beginning to understand.

The Research

Using a deck of playing cards to assign topics and groups randomly as students enter the classroom on the second day, I assemble collaborative groups of four—facilitator, summarizer, researcher, and materials provider/illustrator—in the same way that I assign literature circles for reading. As students work in the library for two days, only those designated as researchers or materials providers/illustrators have permission to circulate in the library and only for as long as it takes to bring materials back to the group table. The students use books on certain disabling conditions, encyclopedias for background, dictionaries for vocabulary, and the Internet for everything. There is a great deal of information on the Internet, including several quizzes about famous individuals who have lived with physical or mental challenges. We found good starting points at the Silver Ribbon Campaign (www.iso.net/~chigger/src) and Kid Source (www.kidsource.com/NICHCY/literature.html). Also, our interdisciplinary teaching team created the Disabilities/Probability Interdisciplinary Project site last year (www.rialto.k12.ca.us/frisbie/coyote/interdisciplinary4.html).
This past year, we got to know a traumatic paraplegic through her Web site. I contacted her and received her agreement to allow my students to contact her. Several students started an ongoing conversation with her through e-mail. I couldn't have planned a better extension activity.
I structure each group's research so that they are not competing for the same resource materials. Also, each group must maintain a collaborative group log that documents the group's findings. Each member of the group must also use the last five minutes of each library day to note in the collaborative log complaints, grievances, compliments, and praise. I make a point of not dealing with the petty problems in the library, but instead tell students to enter the details of the conflict in the log. I assign grades for the unit on the basis of a collaborative group grading sheet that each group member fills out, my review of the group's collaborative log, and the group's oral presentation. After four years, I have found that two days in the library provide the minimum time necessary for a thorough 7th grade research project on this subject.
The collaborative groups then prepare a 10-minute oral panel presentation of their findings. Preparation takes about one to one-and-a-half periods. I use any extra time available for the students to prepare overhead transparencies or to complete vocabulary study guides for the weekly quiz. Depending on the size of the class, the presentations may take a period or two. With support from school administrators, I always videotape these presentations, using technology for authentic documentation and assessment. So far, these activities have taken a total of six periods.

A Special Lesson

On the seventh class day of this unit, I have a special lesson for the students. An individual with multiple physical and intellectual challenges visits the classroom. I am very blessed by my daughter. For the past four years, she has graciously agreed to make a brief presentation from her wheelchair and to answer questions in my classes. She enjoys this so much, in fact, that she makes presentations to other classes, too. Last year she visited another language arts classroom, thus making two presentations for each of five periods. Students always ask her to join them for lunch. When Jaime and I counted, we realized that during the past four years she has spoken to about 1,400 students. She is very proud of her speech, and part of her personal agenda is to educate the world about individuals with challenges.
Jaime's speech and the questions afterward generally take about 20 to 30 minutes, leaving just enough time to administer the vocabulary quiz, which I allow the collaborative groups to work on together. Students can use the vocabulary study guides and any informational notes that they have in the collaborative log. The following day, I ask the collaborative groups to write a brief reaction essay about Jaime's visit and what they have learned in this unit. Each student provides input, but only the summarizer writes it out. Students often create thank-you notes and cards to Jaime on their own.

Future Plans

Next year, I plan to use the Macintosh computer lab for teaching the formal writing process as part of the unit and will continue to assign collaborative groups for researching and writing the report. I would also like to collaborate with the social science teacher, who could help the students gain insights into how the physically, intellectually, and emotionally challenged are viewed and treated throughout the world; the Internet has useful resources for finding how different cultures respond to people with disabilities. There is no limit to the possible collaborations: with the science teacher for studying physical and mental functions of the body and brain; with the mathematics teacher for studying statistical probabilities and percentages of populations affected by certain disabling conditions (a project we worked on last year with great success); or with teachers in physical education, art, or shop.
I deeply value this unit. The students respond positively to it. They refer back to it later, both in speech and in writing. As my students focus their attention on this subject, they become more aware of the invisible population of the challenged and of the alterations, arrangements, and compensations that those individuals must make. Oh yes, and there is one other thing they learn, too. Several students have said over the years after meeting Jaime, "She's just like me." And she is.

Making a Better World for Special People

How many of you know what it is like to be special—to be blind, retarded, deaf, in a wheelchair, or not able to control your muscles? Not very many of you, I am sure. Yet in my school district, 10 percent of the students are in special education classes. I am one of those students, and I do know what it is like to be special.

You would be amazed by what special people can do. You might not be so amazed by what they want. They only want respect and the opportunity to do their best and to work hard. They want the opportunity to show what they can do rather than what they cannot do.

There have been many improvements for special people: handicapped parking, lifts on public buses, entrance ramps for buildings, sidewalk cutdowns, wide stalls with handrails in bathrooms, and even the Special Olympics. All of these improvements have helped to make my world better, but they are all just physical changes to the environment. There are more things to be done.

Regular people need to become more aware of special people of all kinds and to treat us with understanding and respect. One way this could be done would be for all the schools to hold assemblies about special people so that all students could learn about us and meet us. Then the regular people would not be afraid of us anymore and they would learn not to be rude or to tease us. Maybe we could even show the regular students what we really can do. For instance, I could not write all of this speech by myself because my memory for spelling and words is not very good. I told my father what I wanted to say and he helped me. But I did type a lot of it, one letter at a time, and I can read it by myself, and I memorized as much as I could. I am also a good horseback rider—I won a trophy last year—and I have medals in gymnastics. While I was in high school, I was an honor student and worked as a teacher's assistant in another special education class. Now I work four days a week with severely disabled young adults. Other special people have things they do well, too.

A moment ago, I told you that 10 percent of the students in my school district are special people. This probably means that 10 percent of the whole community is made up of special people. It means that 10 percent of the population of the United States—and even of the whole world—is made up of special people. That is a very large amount of the world to be treated with fear or rudeness or prejudice.

I am always telling my teachers and my family that there is one thing that I really want: friends. With friends, I can change the world for the better. My friends would treat me with respect and kindness, and they would teach others to do the same. In that way, the whole world would become a better place for special people like me. Will all of you help by being my friends? I hope so!

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