Back to school: teaching children about disabilities

As the school year approaches, I keep getting emails from my nephew. At the bottom of each email is a P.S. – I can’t wait to start middle school!

I couldn’t ask for a greater gift because my nephew, who has CP, didn’t always feel that way about school. In fact, at a young age, he’s faced inclusion issues. Fortunately he’s in a wonderful school district that attends to his needs and promotes inclusion.

One of the needs the school recognized is that children with disabilities need friends, not just helpers. This concept is basic but crucial. There is a vast difference between using the proximity of mainstreaming to create helpers or encourage friendships.

Helpers are created when teachers or staff ask kids to assist a disabled classmate. This creates a relationship in which the child who is disabled is seen in a very different way than as one of a group of kids who may be a potential friend. In fact, it can prevent friendships from forming if the role of helper is pushed too much by staff or teachers. Turning classmates into helpers can, in certain instances, objectify the student with a disability. It can also reinforce negative myths about disabled people, teaching children that their relationships with disabled people are unidimensional and consist of “helping” them.

This robs everyone of full inclusion. In an inclusive setting, staff anticipates practical issues related to access and other needs of all students and promotes relationships between the children so that the disabled student has opportunities to make friendships on a more equal basis.

This will often include education about disability or awareness classes for able bodied students as well as providing for the accommodations needed for disabled students. Staff can do follow through with students by attending to questions, issues and concerns as they arise during the course of the school year.

By providing the tools all students need, the groundwork is laid for friendships to form, rather than mere helping relationships, between students. In my experience with my nephew, one friend is worth dozens of helpers.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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