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Encountering Disabilities

Richard Hartwell

Jaime's Speech || Vocabulary || Quiz || Group Rubric Scoring || Links || Famous People

"You're blind."
"You're orthopedically impaired. Never mind, we'll discuss it in a moment."
"You're mute."
"You're in a wheelchair. I'll show you where they are in a bit."

One by one as they enter the classroom, with a casual word or phrase, I strike down my students with various afflictions. I am thinking that this must be the ultimate teacher omnipotence. Actually, I am randomly assigning disabilities to my seventh grade language arts class. For this period they will have to role-play their assignments, relying on their own ingenuity, and occasionally the assistance of others, to "get through" one more day. Minimal preparation has been laid the prior day; only a limited mention that they would begin a unit on disabilities and to come to class dressed casually.

Once seated, I quickly take attendance while they enter a response in their daily journals: "How many relatives, friends or neighbors do you know who have a disability? If none, think of the numbers of such individuals you have seen in the mall lately. What kind(s)? How do they make up for their disability?" This is a usual five minute writing exercise.

I then take a quick hand count of positive responses from each category. For relatives, it normally runs the class total up to about 25%. Adding friends or neighbors usually boosts their prior knowledge to about 40%. Observations of others while shopping often brings the total to between 50% and 75%. I generally make some comment about how large a population that is to be generally "invisible" and how not all individuals are challenged from birth, but may acquire disabilities through trauma. This is a natural lead-in to discuss, or even act out, how many people react (or don't) when they encounter the physically or mentally challenged in the public world. I use the situation of shopping at the mall and I model avoidance, staring, laughing, and other common responses I have noted. This polling, discussion and modeling takes about ten minutes. The students are now primed for their activity.

I have prepared by having a box of soft, dark cloths to hand out; each about three to four inches wide and perhaps thirty to thirty-six inches long. Those students who are blind, tie the cloth around their eyes. Those who are mute, tie them around their mouths. The physically impaired loosely tie their dominant arm at the wrist and then others assist in tying the cloth behind the impaired student's back. The wheelchair-bound tie their feet together and then to the desk legs. (Obviously, modifications can be made to these approaches to accommodate various classroom environments. Don't use deaf. I did that the first year and got the obvious in return, "I can't hear you so I can't follow instructions. Write it down.") For the past two years I have had a student volunteer videotape the following exercise. It is a great help to me in assigning cooperation and participation points later and it has become a high point for the students to review their approaches later in the year. All this takes about five minutes.

The real class is now ready to start and the class is informed of the following: "Each student is expected to participate, to cooperate and to undertake the day's lesson. No exceptions. If you have a problem, figure it out. If you can't do it yourself, seek assistance. If it's too hard or cumbersome, work together." I now uncover (or write) the vocabulary for the lesson and proceed to lecture and outline the library research requirements. Vocabulary study guide sheets are on the front table. Research requirements are written on both the front and rear boards. I walk all around the classroom. It is decidedly not an hospitable environment for the disabled.

A blind student raises her hand to complain she obviously can't see the chalkboard and couldn't write down the assignment anyway. My response is that I don't have time to write it out for her and I ask if anyone can help her. A mute boy next to her nods his head and I relay the agreement to her. A boy in a wheelchair complains that he needs a vocabulary study guide from the front table and he can't roll his wheelchair there. "Not only has the desk no wheels, but the aisles are much too narrow anyway!" One student can barely reach the pile and starts to pass them from desk to desk. Another student has a question, but she's mute and resorts to writing me a note, to which I respond. Those students who don't want to play along are generally chastened by others who readily have gotten into the spirit of the lesson. One or two at first, and then in growing numbers, the students begin to "figure things out." They must be innovative. They must adjust. They must modify. They must cooperate!

I allow this climate for about fifteen minutes, or until the majority of the students have begun to get the hang of "sharing and caring." I have about twenty minutes left. I now begin a bit of lecturing using open-ended questions:
"What is a disability?"
"How do you feel when your expectations aren't right or aren't met?"
"What does it mean to compensate?"
Whether verbalized or submitted in notes, it's amazing to encounter such a deep level of understanding and empathy in so short a time. I try to incorporate the vocabulary into this discussion and I use references to and examples from the research outline I had written on the board earlier.

I inform the students that for the next two days they will be in cooperative groups conducting research in the library and on the internet into various areas of concern across a short selection of categories of disabilities. This is about all we can get to in fifty-five minutes. I collect the cloths from the students and dismiss them at the bell. I have often overheard comments from departing students, "Now I know how my cousin feels," or "I'll never stare at her in the store again," and the like. I judge the success of this brief encounter by the number of complaints that I get from the students that they can't role-model for the rest of the day in their remaining classes. At first I was concerned that this just reflected the novelty of the exercise, but when I inquire why I am usually told something like, "I just got the hang of writing with my left hand," or "I found myself listening more carefully in class." Yes, they were truly beginning to understand.

The following two days are devoted to library research. The students are randomly assigned to a cooperative group of four:
Only those designated researcher and timekeeper/materials may circulate in the library and only as long as it takes to return back to the group table. The students use books on certain disabling conditions, encyclopedias for background, dictionaries for vocabulary, and the internet for everything. There is a great deal of information on the internet, including several quizzes about famous individuals who have lived with physical or mental challenges.

As noted below, I structure each group's research so that they are not competing for the same resource materials. Also, each group must maintain a Cooperative Group Log in a composition book in order to document the group's findings. I also require them to use the last five minutes of each library day for each member of the group to note in the Cooperative Group Log her or his complaints, grievances, compliments, or praise. I make a point of not dealing with the petty problems in the library, but instead refer the students to entering the details of the conflict in the Log. I advise them that their grade for the unit will be based upon a Cooperative Group Rubric completed by each individual, my review of the group's Cooperative Group Log, and their oral presentation. After three years, I have found that two days in the library is the minimum time necessary for thorough, seventh-grade research.

The cooperative groups then prepare a five to ten minute oral presentation of their findings. This takes about one to one-and-a-half periods. I use any "extra" time for the students to prepare overhead transparencies, word-processed or hand-lettered, or to complete vocabulary study guides for the weekly quiz. Depending on the size of the classes, the presentations may take a period or perhaps a bit more. I always videotape these presentations and have received great support from my administration; documentation using technology is all the rage. So far all of this has taken about six periods.

On the seventh class day of this unit, I have a treat for the students. They are visited by an individual with multiple physical and intellectual challenges. I am very blessed by my daughter. For the past three years she has graciously agreed to make a brief presentation from her wheelchair and to answer questions in my classes. She enjoys this so much, in fact, that she makes presentations to other classes during my conference and exploratory periods. Last year she even doubled-up and visited another language arts classroom, thus making two presentations for each of four periods. Jaime and I figured it up. Over three years she has spoken to about 900 to 1000 students! She is very proud of her speech and has made it part of her agenda to educate the world. She is a marvelous ambassador. The students always volunteer to take her to lunch. I always offer to pay for the lunches, but the students have paid themselves for all three years!

Jaime's speech and the questions afterward generally take about twenty to thirty minutes, leaving just enough time to administer the vocabulary quiz, which I allow to be taken by the cooperative group as a whole. Vocabulary Study Guides can be used as can any informational notes in the Cooperative Group Log. The following day I request the cooperative groups to write a brief reaction essay to Jaime's visit and what they have learned in this unit. This is a cooperative group essay created in the Group Log and has not been a formal requirement until this year. Each student provides input, but only the recorder writes it out.

Next year I want to expand the writing element and use the Macintosh computer lab and the formal, six-step writing process, but still using the cooperative groups. I would also like to collaborate next year with the social science teacher. I believe that this unit could provide the students with an insight into how the physically, intellectually, and emotionally challenged are viewed and treated throughout the world. As I have increasingly used the internet, I have noticed differences which I feel the students could pursue from a cultural perspective. It would also be very possible to collaborate with science regarding physical and mental functions of the body and even with mathematics regarding statistical probabilities and percentages of populations affected. These are areas I would like to pursue in the future. I believe there are no limits to the levels of possible collaboration: physical education, art, even shop. Also, as Jaime will be graduating high school and turns twenty-one this year, I may have to look to other sources for my surprise speaker.

I can not over-value this unit. The students love it. They respond positively to it. They refer back to it later, both in speech and in writing. I believe with the cooperative, concentrated attention my students must focus on this unit, they become more aware of the "invisible" population of the challenged and the alterations, arrangements, and compensations which those individuals must make. Oh yes, and perhaps one other thing they learn too. As several students have said over the years after the up close and personal meeting with Jaime, "She's just like me." And yes, she is!

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