We all want schools that are accepting and understanding. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done. Even though our hearts may be in the right place, our minds can often mess it up. Never fear”¦ here are our experiences and tips on how to make that goal of acceptance a reality.
(Editor’s Note: In this blog post, Mike and Tim are speaking only from their personal experience. This lens is two-fold: having a disability [Mike], and working with someone who has a disability [Tim]. In addition, we are speaking from the experience of a disability that is solely manifested physically)
Inclusion is understanding. It has been our experience that the more that you separate students with disabilities from those who do not, the harder it is for each group to come together, socialize, and find a common ground. So”¦ Where do you start? It sounds simple, but beginning an open dialogue can create major change. The easiest way to demystify differences is by talking about them. Have a class discussion on what it means to be different. The word “different” can be interpreted in many ways ““ though it more often than not comes with a negative connotation attached. We don’t feel that way at all. Every person on this massive planet is unique. Whether it is physical traits (shape, color, height, ability, etc.) or personality traits (introvert, extrovert, stoic, sensitive, hard-headed, etc.), we are all different in some way from one another. Getting this concept out into the open will clear a major hurdle. After talking about differences, focus on everyone’s similarities to further the discussion.
Students need to know and have the ability to exercise this belief:
Don’t be afraid to be yourself.
Unique qualities are to be both embraced and shared. It is important to start this thought process in school and the earlier you can start, the sooner your students will benefit. School is a structured environment where dialogue is healthy and a teacher can guide the conversation in whatever direction they feel would benefit their students the most.
When looking into the issue of inclusion or acceptance, one of the more glaring obstacles to overcome is that teachers are afraid of making a mistake. Being afraid of making mistakes is 100% normal and understandable. But thinking this way, or more importantly teaching from a place of fear, can have unforeseen ramifications. In Mike’s experience, teachers tended to treat someone with a physical disability one of two ways: (1) with “kid gloves” or (2) with a hands-off approach and therefore leaving the student out of being a full member of the class unit. The reason the latter can manifest is that they don’t want to say something or do something that could be looked upon as wrong and/or insensitive. The fear of doing the wrong thing stops them from doing the right thing and they do little if anything to include the student. This kind of action is a poor model for the rest of their classmates. If the teacher feels this way, how can the students think any different?
Teachers need to know and have the ability to exercise this belief:
Don’t be afraid of making a mistake.
There are no such thing as mistakes only learning experiences”¦ and isn’t that what education is all about?
In his 8th grade year, Mike had an incredible teacher, Mr. Lesniak, who was able to think outside the box and make a difference with him as well as the rest of his students. Mike is unable to physically raise his hand and therefore, it made it hard for him to participate in his various classes. Moreover, Mike really wanted to participate and teachers frowned upon him shouting out the answers. Mr. Lesniak saw this and decided to use a little creative spirit to solve this seemingly impossible-to-fix problem. The solution? He created a light that attached to the back of Mike’s chair. All Mike would have to do is press a button located on his armrest and (viola!!) a light would go on above Mike’s head ““ signifying that Mike was raising his hand. The effect this simple idea had on Mike was immeasurable. What stood out even more was the effect it had on Mike’s peers. These classmates were able to see that Mike had a lot to offer in discussions and viewed him as a valuable member of the class. Shrinking the gap between the able-bodied and the disabled ““ inclusion at its finest.
We know firsthand the power celebrating differences can have. This story is an example of inclusion, and our stage show references this story and many other examples as well. When students and teachers experience these examples, something inside them changes. They are more accepting, more understanding, more forward thinking. We have been traveling the country for more than 5 years, sharing our story with as many schools as we can. This past year, we came up with an even better idea that would make our show more readily available for any middle school or high school. We have created a digital version of our show. Schools can now access our show via the internet! Your school will have access to our show for the entire school year (ending June 30, 2016). Plus: There is even a way, via a Google Hangout or Skype session, to bring us into your classroom for a 45-minute live chat.