When the Teacher Sets the Tone for Inclusion of Students With Disabilities

As a special education teacher and former special education student, I can’t help but compare my personal experience as a student with that of my current students. I try to use my memories as a barometer of how I want my students’ experience in school to be.

During my elementary and middle school years, I wore a back brace for congenital scoliosis related to my Goldenhar syndrome. This limited my range of movement, made it difficult to jump, skip or hop effectively and slowed me down considerably when I ran. In sum, it made it difficult for me to move like a kid. Without it, I could do all those things, but doctor’s orders were to remove it only for bathing.

As a result of this or my inherent personality growing up, I was mostly content being moderately sedentary. I watched a lot of TV and read a lot of books. I was only mildly uncomfortable playing typical games with my friends. I wasn’t competitive, so I didn’t care if I didn’t win a race or make a goal. I also knew I could bow out without consequence when I was tired of trying to keep up.

PE classes were different. I felt my teacher’s primary purpose was to teach us how to play games or exercise effectively to win — against other students or the clock. I hated the fact that I couldn’t opt out. I didn’t qualify for Adapted PE because without the brace I could participate with my non-disabled peers. But my doctor’s recommendation prevented me from removing it. Self-conscious, I felt like a liability to my classmates and a source of frustration to my teacher.

This was highlighted to me my sixth grade year at a new, bigger school with many new faces. Unbeknownst to me, my mom knew I might have difficulty in PE, so she tried to be proactive and talked to the PE teachers before school started. Still, when I arrived on the blacktop and handed my schedule to one of three PE teachers, she looked at my name and said dismissively “Oh yo,u” and directed me to the next teacher. Taking my schedule again, the next teacher explained his group was full and directed me to the last one. When that one saw my name, she forced a smile on her face and directed me to sit down on the blacktop with the others. Embarrassed and physically uncomfortable, I did so with little grace, I thought.

Thus began a forced relationship based on endurance on both our parts. When I jogged in from a mile run so behind, my classmates and my teacher had stopped waiting to time me, I endured her comment, “the cows came home a long time ago.” She endured giving me a passing grade anyway “so my mother would not be upset.” During this year, what little inherent interest I had in physical activity diminished more as I continually disappointed her. I became so fixated on my feelings of liability, I did not appreciate when my classmates tried to be patient with me as I tried to run and dribble a basketball. I had given up because of my teacher, and soon, so did my peers.

Years later, as a resource specialist and long after I had been freed of my back brace, I had the
opportunity to witness a more positive outcome for a little girl with cerebral palsy when I became her case manager. She used a motorized wheelchair and communicated through a computer. She was lively and intelligent and up for the challenge of being the first wheelchair user in our school. Her classroom teacher, a brand new general education teacher, took on the challenge of including her in meaningful ways.

Though the little girl did qualify for Adaptive PE, her teacher did not want her to sit on the sidelines
during class PE times. Having no training in inclusion, she came to me voluntarily for ideas. With the help of the girl’s assistant and a book on adaptive PE and inclusion of students with disabilities, the teacher wholeheartedly came up with a plan for her to participate and be happy on her terms.

Soon, I watched as she threw a small ball and participated in a modified basketball game, or laughed in mischievous satisfaction as she raced her wheelchair against her peers. No one hesitated, no one feigned acceptance. She could not participate in the same way as her peers, but her teacher made sure she was equal to them. Her teacher accepted and appreciated her abilities. She never hesitated in front of the girl, and the girl never hung back from the class.

I witnessed students approach her of their own volition at recess and devise games for her to play on the blacktop among other kids. She did not need to sit idly on the edge or participate in unimaginative activities in her wheelchair. This was right on so many levels. I was glad for her and for the other students. I’m glad this was a great experience for her, and confident future students with disabilities will have a positive experience because of this teacher and her students.

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