From Section 1, idea #3 of Don’t We Already Do Inclusion?
Inclusive schools are not just places where we educate students with and without disabilities. In the best of circumstances, they are places where we inspire learners to think differently about ability. Disability awareness lessons done right can help teachers do this. Unfortunately, most disability awareness activities are not done right.
When most awareness activities are planned, they focus on simulations (e.g., letting students spend time in a wheelchair, blindfolding students to let them “experience” blindness) or on information about disability categories. If you really want to strengthen your inclusive school, however, consider a different approach to disability awareness that illuminates exclusions, social constructions of disability, and bias.
For instance, in April of 2012, Arla Jan Wilson’s story of her son’s exclusion from a high school choir concert went viral and created a stir of debate and discussion not only in the disability rights communities but in many circles. Alex, a member of his school choir, came to the evening concert to perform, but when the director invited choir members to come forward to sing, Alex could not get on the risers and was only able to propel himself to the side of the stage. His mother snapped a photo of Alex sitting next to one of the risers on the side of the state. The other students are several yards away on a center riser singing away. To really appreciate how shocking this exclusion was, do a Google search to see both the coverage of the story and the photograph.
If you do this search, you will see that in most stories written about the event, the teacher who failed to bring Alex into the group was the object of scorn. The question, I had, however, was, “How had the school community as a whole let this happen?” Surely, someone in the audience noticed that Alex was not with his peers and that the choir had started singing without him. Not one parent stood up to object? No other teacher noticed and thought to interrupt? Did any school choir member realize they were missing a performer? This is exactly the kind of story I would want to share with students in a conversation about “disability awareness”. It is fine, of course, to have them learn about individual differences, but it is most powerful to do so in a social justice framework.
Some ideas for doing disability awareness in a more enlightened way are to:
- have students talk to adults with disabilities about the experience of exclusion and explore solutions to exclusion and barriers
- have willing students with disabilities speak on a panel about creating welcoming schools and communities
- ask students to tour their own school and look for accessibility problems
- ask students to review school programs, events, and activities and assess how inclusive they are
- do a book discussion on a biography of a self-advocate
- examine laws related to disability rights
Want more tools? Check out the Disability Studies for Teachers website for lessons that will help middle and high school students think critically about how disability is defined and represented in society.
What kinds of disability awareness activities have you used at your school? Are there other activities you might incorporate to make the lessons more respectful or meaningful?