“Ms. Green, did you know that I have autism?” Andrew asked as I discussed our new lesson, “Communicating with Persons with Disabilities.” I was stunned, because Andrew often spoke in class, didn’t appear to have a speech delay, and was able to cope with changes in routine.
I recently had a conversation with my students about President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the $3 billion that has been dedicated to funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. With the help of ARP, the Department of Education will now be able to offer states more flexibility, allowing schools to spend more of the federal dollars on technology for distance learning. This should free up school districts to provide more comprehensive instruction for students with disabilities and to address their needs.
My students were curious to learn more about the process to stabilize education budgets amid deep losses in state revenue, and they wanted to know how this would affect “the invisible students,” those “we never see around the school.” I also wanted to not only reduce the stigma associated with persons with disabilities that all too often leads to their unemployment and polarization, but to diminish the divisive rhetoric that has a profound effect on their humanity.
To start, my students and I watched “Wonder,” a film about a boy with facial differences who attends a mainstream elementary school for the first time. One of my students said offhandedly, “Oh yeah. That’s the movie about the deformed kid.” Immediately, I reminded him that language matters. Instead of saying “the deformed kid,” he could say “the student with the facial deformity.” It is important to recognize the movie’s character as a person first, in order to reflect upon his individuality and equality, and to provide him with a sense of dignity.
Then my students and I then visited three different life skills classes in our school:
- A work-based unit
- A specialized autism behavior class
- A higher-functioning life skills classroom.
I told my students that I used to teach special education and was a case manager on our campus. I was familiar with the behavior of special needs students; they are kids just like them.
We discussed buzzwords such as paraprofessional or “paras,” job coaches, and most importantly, personal space. My professional communications students needed to be prepared in the event they felt a special education student was getting too close or making them feel uncomfortable. The general education student could simply state, “personal space, please.”
My students were impressed by the life skills students’ ability to maintain a conversation while completing assignments. Christopher said, “It’s like I was talking to a friend in one of my general education classes.” If a student with special needs needed academic assistance, the professional communications students were there to help. In return, my students were learning how to make connections with students with individual differences. Most importantly, special education and general education students interacted and performed the same tasks in a safe learning environment. The lesson was good preparation for both types of students as they move toward independence and diversity in employment.
My students spoke with one of our life skills teachers on the steps special educators are taking toward implementing a broader scope of inclusion.
Samuel said, “I can relate to those kids. My brother is 10 years old and a person with autism. He’s the smartest person I know.” As for Andrew, he said, “This lets me know I am not alone as I navigate through this journey.”
In each of my classes, I had at least one student who could relate in some type of way. By changing the way my students perceived, interacted with, and collaborated with their special needs peers, I believe a new idea of inclusion may lead to life-long lessons.