April 19, 2009
I have posted before and testified to the school board about the importance of a strong commitment to making schools ADA accessible so the policy that all PPS students have the right to go to their neighborhood school will actually be true.
When the city begins to make these changes it is going to be important to use a universal design approach to updating buildings, classrooms, and communities.
Universal design is a broad solution to accessibility issues where you modify buildings, products, and environments that everyone benefits from; not just people with disabilities. We already have a lot of examples of universal design in our city. The most common example is curb cuts in the sidewalk. People in wheelchairs benefit, cyclists, strollers, people with joint problems, young children, and joggers. Automatic doors are a great help for people with disabilities and nowadays we actually notice when a grocery store does not have an automatic door vs. when they do. Other examples: touch screen tests, closed captioning, books on CD, online classes, choice of languages on electronic equipment, low ramp busses, icons and noises at crosswalks. These things most of us take for granted but they help others a great deal.
Universal design in schools provides benefits for all learners and the modifications a student with a disability might need could also benefit a non-disabled student in other ways. The focus of universal design requires you to gather facts about your learners before you teach them. You will look at the content including academic and social goals of the lesson, the process and how the students engage in learning, how the students will demonstrate the learning, and then also within the process of instruction you will need to look at social, physical, and environmental supports. I will stop here for a moment to throw in a sidebar: Currently, what I feel may be more common is that a general education teacher does not have the academic flexibility to gather information about ANY of their learners much less consider how to apply principles of universal design. Special education departments are undertrained and understaffed and it is hard for a general education teacher and a special education teacher to collaborate in meaningful ways. In a perfect world, every classroom would have both a general education and special education teacher in the same room teaching all the students. An unsupported teacher gets between a rock and a hard place and modifying curriculum and environments is backburnered. The child with the disability is usually the one whose needs are considered last in the absence of resources for all. Disclaimer: I feel strongly that teachers are the salt of the earth and we don’t even know the half of what they do to educate our kids creatively with next to nothing in the way of resources. With that said, a few teachers just don’t want a kid with a disability in their class and will either purposely or with ignorant intent sabotage the experience so the child will be removed into a segregated setting more often during the day or completely into a new school or self-contained classroom. Some school are notorious for dumping kids into segregated placement for behavior they would not even blink at in the general education population. Unfortunately, we place above average expectations of behavior on children with disabilities but have low expectation about what we will teach them or allow them to experience.
Universal design encompasses both widespread structural changes but also creative solutions that are right under our nose.
Here are some examples of creative solutions that benefit all kids in the classroom:
Alpha-smarts are mini word processors that have helped a lot of kids who have a hard time with writing or getting homework in. Give the kid in the class that takes the best notes some carbon paper so the child that cannot both listen to the teacher and write at the same time can have notes. Have the kids sit on exercise balls at their desks so the kids with ADHD can wake up their butts and everyone has better posture. Use colored carpet squares so the kids with autism can have a defined space but everyone knows where they need to be. Have the kid with the wheelchair use his tray board as the desk for other kids to dissect their frogs on. Use station learning with different choices about how to convey the concepts based on multiple intelligences. Pair the kid who is best at math with the kid that needs help; the student as teacher will cement the learning in a new way and the student being helped will be able to learn from a peer model. Many teachers have found that the best way to figure out how to modify curriculum is to expose students in general education to students with disabilities and then ask the kids how they think they can help their peers learn the material.
Kids get it when we give them a chance.
Stephanie Hunter is a behavior consultant and the parent of a student at Ockley Green. She is active in local and statewide advocacy for children and adults with disabilities, which she writes about on her blog Belonging Matters.