HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Teaching Inclusion: The Whys and Hows

by Ruth Gorrin Issue: Special Needs

One of the basic concepts of Jewish thought is the idea that everyone is created betzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. This idea frames the way individuals should view others. Students need to recognize that each human being is unique, important and of equal value.

People with disabilities tend to be more hurt by the attitudes and behaviors of the uninformed than by their disabilities, so they often enjoy speaking with the students and helping them change their attitudes and behavior.

Yet children often fear people with disabilities. They are uncomfortable, don’t know what to say or where to look, and see disabled people as “other.” To deal with this conflict between ideal and real, Tehiyah Day School formalized a program to teach about disabilities. Fourth grade was seen as the optimal grade in which to institute the program, since 9 year olds are able to think abstractly and see things from others’ perspective.

We begin by exploring the ways in which we are all alike and different, either through discussion, use of Venn diagrams, or the assignment of short essays that students share with the class. Students learn that everyone possesses the same feelings, hopes, etc., and that everyone has unique characteristics as well as an individual pattern of strengths and limitations. A “pre-test” gives students a chance to think about the possible abilities of people with disabilities.

It is helpful to focus specifically on different types of disabilities one at a time, including vision and hearing impairment, orthopedic difficulties and differences, learning problems, and developmental disabilities. For each type of disability, students can be taught facts about how the body functions and may fail to function. They learn that there are many forms of low vision and hearing impairment in addition to total blindness and complete deafness. Most children are fascinated by Braille and American Sign Language, eager to learn the basics, and excited by being able to finger-spell their names. It is also enlightening for them to spend an hour or more blindfolded for homework. They find that some tasks are easier than expected, some harder. They are stretched to imagine how a blind person can do these tasks, perhaps in a different way or with special tools.

There are many books about disabilities available now, including fiction and nonfiction, children’s and young adult novels, and picture books. Although older stories often portrayed people with disabilities as pitiable (Clara and Peter’s blind grandmother in Heidi), evil (Captain Hook in Peter Pan), super-human (anything about Helen Keller) or foolish (the dwarfs in the Disney version of Snow White), most new literature show people with disabilities leading normal lives, or discovering that being different does not mean being less.

The most powerful and important part of learning about disabilities is meeting guests who come into the classroom to answer questions about themselves. People with disabilities tend to be more hurt by the attitudes and behaviors of the uninformed than by their disabilities, so they often enjoy speaking with the students and helping them change their attitudes and behavior. Students can have their natural curiosity satisfied by asking anything they want to know. They see and handle some of the many adaptive aids used by people with disabilities, open and close a prosthetic hook, play with a Braille domino set, and so on. More importantly, they make new friends and get to know the guests as people, who can do pretty much the same things as everyone else, perhaps only slower or in a different way or with the use of special equipment.

It’s not difficult to find guests. If you live in a college town, there is likely to be a department for disabled students. Other communities have services for supporting independent living. Many communities have wheelchair basketball, power soccer, and beep ball and goal ball for the blind. Once you start, many people will say, “Oh, I know someone you should invite,” or “My cousin has such-and-such disability and would be a great guest.”

Once you have established a climate of acceptance, students with hidden disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia, and autism spectrum disorders may be willing to speak as guests for their classmates or younger students. My current and former students who come in to speak find it a huge relief not to have to keep their disabilities a secret. The other children become accepting of behavior that is different, and understanding about accommodations. Children with disabilities can feel comfortable with the disability being just one aspect of who they are, one way that they are unique.

Visits should always be followed by written thank you notes (or a tape recording for a blind guest). Give students a chance to tell the guests what they learned and appreciated. We officially close the unit with another chance at the same worksheet we used for a pre-test, when students demonstrate their awareness that people with disabilities have more in common with themselves than not, and more abilities than disabilities. In class discussion, they can explain why they thought someone would have a certain ability when other classmates thought differently. They also have a chance to compare their original page with this second one to see how their understanding has grown. ♦

Ruth Gorrin has been teaching at Tehiyah Day School since 1983. She can be reached at rgorrin@tehiyah.org.

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Special Needs

Schools increasingly need to be aware of a growing range of conditions and challenges that students confront. These challenges present school leaders with numerous considerations at various levels: funding, admissions, staffing, curriculum, health care and more. This pioneering issue serves as a roadmap for leaders as they navigate this complex terrain.

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