Our Children Aren't Broken - Thoughts On How Society Treats Disability

Do you know Jonathan Mooney? You need to. He’s awesome. This past Spring I heard him speak and I’ve recently finished reading his book, “The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal”. I was immediately drawn in by his deliberate use of the proverbial short bus. Instantly recognizable and virtually impossible to overcome as a stereotype, the “short bus” brings with it society’s negative constructs around special education and the derogatory slurs frequently assigned to children who have disabilities. Whether you are as immersed in the world of inclusion as I am or not, this is a book of outstanding depth and profound insights.

I was most taken by chapter twelve, a chapter which focuses on Katie, a young woman with Down syndrome. As a part of his quest to understand “normal”, Mooney explores Katie’s desire to live an ordinary life, yet worries aloud that this may not be possible in America. In conversation with Katie’s mother, Mooney learns of her fear that Katie will always be poor as she “does not accept SSI or any other aid from the federal government…If Katie accepted SSI, she could earn no more than seventy dollars a month from a job; if she made more than that amount, she would lose SSI money. To remain eligible for Medicare in Ohio, Katie could accumulate no more than a thousand dollars’ worth of assets. So Katie can’t even own a cheap, used car. [Her family] had been told not to include Katie in their will, because this “wealth” would threaten her future ability to get SSI and Medicaid.” I believe that this resonated so deeply for me due to the time I spent earlier this year in Washington DC lobbying on behalf of the ABLE Act as a part of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day. There are similar stories to Katie’s all over our country.

Further, as an advocate for inclusive education, I found it frustrating that “Katie’s space in the community college, one of her best outlets for socialization, was also evaporating. Because of a complicated legal loophole, she is not eligible to receive special accommodations in her classes without identifying herself as a student with a disability. But if she self-identifies as a student with Down syndrome, she will be considered ineligible for financial aid and accommodations because, based on an assumption of her “low IQ” she would be considered to have no “abilities to benefit” from higher education.”

And so, given all of this, Mooney earnestly asks Katie’s mother, “How do we help Katie?” By way of reply, she simply laughs. “I understand where that question comes from – I used to ask myself the same question. How can I help or fix Katie? But Katie isn’t the one who needs to be fixed.”

And there it is. There is the profound truth. When we spend our lives trying to “fix” our children and our students; no matter how pure our intentions, we perpetuate a societal concept of “normal” that views disability as broken. It is deep in our cultural consciousness to view Katie and other people with disabilities through the lens of what is wrong with them. We teach, we train, and we try our best to fix. But our children aren’t broken. 

Every child is perfect, created in God's image. Every child is a gift and has gifts to share. That’s it. It’s a simple truth. Our children aren’t broken.

Fireworks as a Model of Successful Inclusion

As we prepare for July 4th celebrations around the country, many communities are organizing fireworks displays. One of my family’s traditions is to point out our favorites as we watch together. My daughter likes the swirly ones and my son likes the ones that are loud and bright. My husband enjoys the ones that shoot up the highest while I am most drawn to the ones that crackle.

I suspect that we are not so unique. After all, a fireworks display is most enjoyable when dozens of different patterns explode together in a bright mix of color and sound. In fact, most of us would be quick to criticize a display that had a lack of variety, too much of one color, or anything else that made it seem dull or uninteresting.

Our day-to-day lives should be a mirror image of a successful fireworks display. Experiences should be their most enjoyable when we successfully bring together a vast array of people and perspectives, merging them into a colorful and intriguing whole.

And yet, we know that this is not always the case. We know that we have a way to go before we can say that we fully celebrate such diversity. We continue to find comfort in familiarity and security in the known. We need to move our culture to a place where we look around and wonder what’s missing; rather than sitting idly by while a select few even notice those who are kept at a distance.

Quite simply, inclusion is belonging. And when we recognize that every person - yes EVERY person - has a right to belong, then, and only then, will we experience the most outstanding finale of the most spectacular fireworks display we have yet to see.

Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make

Inclusion takes intentional planning and hard work. Even the most seasoned educators will make mistakes from time to time. The key is to recognize that mistakes will happen. Our goal is to accept responsibility and grow in the process.

Here are what I believe to be the ten most common inclusion mistakes:

1.      Not devoting enough time for planning
Most teachers will agree; there are just not enough hours in the day to do it all. But successful inclusion requires intentional planning. It just can not be accomplished by short-cut. Each of us is guilty of rushing from time to time, but to be committed to inclusion means to devote the necessary time to appropriate planning.

2.      Going it alone
Jumping off from number one above, inclusion is at its best when teachers plan intentionally AND collaborate. There is no shame in asking for help; ever. Despite this, many teachers feel that asking for support or assistance is a sign of weakness or lack of competence. Many teachers also believe that they have do it themselves if they want it done right. Letting go of some of the control and working in collaboration with others is not only acceptable, it is critical for successful inclusion.

3.      Forgetting that successful education isn't one-size-fits-all
When we find strategies that work, it’s easy to assume that those same strategies will continue to work. However, the truth is that many students, particularly those with disabilities, require different strategies across different learning situations.  Educators must have a “bag of tricks”, but consistently pulling the same trick out of your bag will prove unsuccessful.

4.      Assuming that accommodating is the same as inclusion
Making accommodations is necessary to ensure that the needs of all students are met. However, simply adapting or adjusting lessons is not inclusion. Inclusion is about belonging. It is about every student being fully integrated into the life of the classroom. Making accommodations is an integral part of the process, but it is not sufficient in and of itself.

5.      Believing that group work is the same as differentiating instruction
Differentiating instruction is a methodology which enables students to progress at their own pace via activities that are developmentally appropriate. It exposes all students to a vast array of learning opportunities and experiences. Simply assigning students to work in groups is not an effective form of differentiation.

6.      Thinking that fairness in the classroom is best accomplished by equality.
Fair is not equal. Fairness is when everyone gets what he or she needs to be successful. Students should not be compared to one another or to an arbitrary level of expectation. All students should be working toward progress from their own current level of functioning.

7.      Not having an inclusive school community despite highly successful special education programs
This one is hard for teachers to control on their own, but ignoring it altogether will not move a community forward. Advocates for inclusion must raise their voices at every opportunity and support those who have yet to fully embrace the value of inclusion. Special education teachers have a unique vantage point in a school community and can help colleagues and school leaders learn to advance their inclusive practices. It may not be part of your “classroom work”, but it is absolutely a part of the job.

8.      Underestimating a student
We have all done it; been wonderfully surprised when a student accomplishes something we never expected. We do not mean to underestimate our students, but sometimes we haven’t yet seen what he/she is capable of achieving. It is essential for us to always push our students to their highest potential, even if that potential has yet to be fully discovered.

9.      Not practicing what you preach
Do you teach special education, but justify parking in a handicapped spot because “you are just running in for a minute”? Do you advocate for school inclusion, but then allow your own child to exclude another child in her class with disabilities from her birthday party? We need to work toward a place where we are as inclusive in our personal lives as we are in our professional ones. It’s important to be consistent models for our peers and our children, not just in formal situations, but in day-to-day life choices and experiences.

10.  Reinventing the wheel
Educators too often recreate materials and/or lessons that have already been successfully developed and utilized. Collaborating, sharing resources and taking the time to find a proven differentiated lesson will pay off later as you free up more time to devote to student’s individual needs and issues.

None of these mistakes make you a bad teacher! Rather, recognizing our natural human tendencies and our own limitations will enable us to grow both personally and professionally.

The day we stop learning is the day we should stop teaching!

Another version of this article originally appeared on Think Inclusive.

Teaching Disability Acceptance and Diversity - A Survival Kit

In Teach Your Children to Be Accepting of Disabilities, I wrote about the way our children learn from the adults around them. When we are truly inclusive in our daily lives, the children around us acquire this same skill comfortably and easily. In that same article, I shared ways that adults might reframe their own behavior to model inclusivity for children. Yet modeling does not replace the need to directly teach these skills.

In a post called “The "New and Improved" Digital Citizenship Survival Kit”, Craig Badura, PK-12 Technology Integration Specialist for Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, Nebraska, describes a terrific activity for teaching appropriate online behavior. 


And, of course, after bookmarking it and thinking about how I might weave in Jewish text to create a program for our post b’nei mitzvah students, my brain went to how this might be used to intentionally teach children to be accepting of disabilities and diversity. (As an aside, for those still using simulations to teach disability awareness, I urge you to rethink your position: Rethinking Disability Simulations)


Teaching Disability Acceptance and Diversity Survival Kit:

Used for lessons on bullying, online behavior and more, a tube of toothpaste presents an outstanding visual image.  Have students squeeze a small amount of toothpaste out of their tube (or demonstrate for the class with one tube). Then instruct them to put it back into the tube (have students take turns trying with yours if you only have the one example). Kids will quickly realize that this is virtually impossible; and that’s the point. Our words or behaviors toward another person, once out there, are virtually impossible to take back.

Packet of Seeds
A seed packet is used to stress that what students are doing now will have an impact on their lives in the future. We want our students to think about the "seeds" that they are sowing as they interact with others in the world around them.  Will their behavior grow into a bigger problem? Or will they take the opportunity to grow a plant that will be a strong, positive representation of who they are?

Every time you interact with someone; imagine a mirror attached to the other person. Are you behaving and speaking in a way that is consistent with the value of b’tzelem elohim (being created in God’s image?) If you looked in the mirror and saw a friend, a parent or another significant person in the reflection, would they approve of what you are doing or saying?

Sheet of Paper
This is possibly the most powerful item in the kit. Take a new sheet of paper and hand it to a student, instructing him/her to crumple it up into a ball. Have her throw it on the ground and stomp on it, then ask her to pick it up and unravel it in front of the class. Finally, direct her to apologize to the piece of paper for destroying it. Be prepared for some strange looks and laughter from the rest of the class. After the student apologizes to the piece of paper explain to the students that the piece of paper represents a person who has been embarrassed, harassed or even just consistently ignored because he/she has a disability. We can apologize all we want, but the emotional scars DON'T go away.

I’d love to hear from you! What would you add to the survival kit?