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11 Ways Schools Can Become More Inclusive and Accepting

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One of the challenges parents of kids with disabilities face is finding a school that is accommodating and accepting. Despite of the fact that we are waking up to more acceptance and awareness, there is still a long way to go, and schools — the foundation of our society — have an important role to play in this.

While every school has its own approach towards special education, the following are a few ideas on how a more robust environment can be built for kids of all abilities. Some of these have been successfully tried and tested by schools here in US.

1. Awareness is the first step towards inclusion and acceptance. Schools can build in awareness days in their schedule. Awareness days could be observed on days like World Autism Awareness Day, World Down Syndrome Day etc. This way, every student in the school is aware of these conditions. Wearing blue in April in support of autism is an example of how this could be done. During awareness days, every class could be given “awareness points” for coming up with ways to raise awareness, and the class with the most awareness points gets a special privilege for a day.

2. Schools could run an art contest where students express what disability means to them. Arts is a wonderful way of expression and this would be a great activity for the impressionable minds.

3. Classes could run “penny wars” and the money collected could be used toward buying therapy items, like sensory toys or other useful items for student with disabilities that would help them go through the school day successfully. This could be a wonderful exercise in compassion and thoughtfulness.

4. Of the many themes that adorn the corridors of our schools, artifacts and slogans related to disability could help bring about more awareness. It will definitely catch the attention of students and teach them a little more about kids with disabilities and how they are extraordinary in their own unique way. Involving students in awareness efforts instead of having a pedantic approach to awareness could help push the point across better.

5. Students could be exposed to sign language. It could help them communicate with kids with speech and hearing disabilities and better understand their challenges. Teachers could encourage students to use sign language in some classes just to give mainstream students a glimpse of the life of kids who cannot express themselves verbally. Walking in someone else’s shoes is the best way to know how they feel and deal with their lives.

6. There are a lot of extra-curricular activities in the school that are not designed for kids with disabilities or have no accommodations to facilitate their participation. For such activities, having a student volunteer who could facilitate that inclusion could be a great way of forming connections while providing opportunities for everyone to be included.

7. Another great way to be more inclusive would be to train all teachers (including music, arts and physical education instructors) in special education, or at the least have them attend a seminar or two on how to best work with kids with different learning needs. The idea is to make all teachers available for all students, instead of a handful of teachers who are exclusively hired to work with special education students.

8. Christian, s student in Roundtown Elementary came up with the absolutely brilliant idea of a “buddy bench” that can help build relationships among students. Each playground can be equipped with a buddy bench where any student can sit if they need a playmate or a companion. This could be a visual reminder for others to extend a hand and be a friend. Alternatively, two different students sitting on this buddy bench could find a friend in each other. Since students with disabilities tend to withdraw in their shell or feel left out because of their challenges, this could really work towards inclusion and acceptance. A buddy club could be created in a similar way where students could volunteer to join and make themselves available to a child with disabilities and be their friend.

9. Schools need to ensure that they have a push-in instead of a pull-out approach; instead of pulling out students with disabilities into a separate classroom, they are pushed into the mainstream classroom and everyone learns to accept and appreciate their uniqueness. Inclusive, not exclusive, should be the aim.

10. An accessible playground seems like an expensive proposition, but it’s not impossible if the schools and the students have the willingness to do so. Valencia Elementary in Aptos, California, ran campaigns, used the expertise and connection of parents to achieve this and was able to collect more than they needed for the playground. Parents within the construction industry can help with purchase of raw materials at lower cost while those with planning and management expertise can help with the actual project. Playgrounds are not just for mainstream kids but for every single child in the school, so having an accessible playground seems like the most obvious thing, yet most schools still don’t have it.

11. Some responsibility also rests upon the parents. There needs to be a PTA for parents of kids with disabilities in every school so that parents can bring in a perspective that might be otherwise missing. Each school should have a “getting started resource person” who can connect new parents to the already enrolled ones and help them with all kinds of information that might be useful. We need mainstream kids and their parents to sit up and notice these missing pieces and the need for acceptance and inclusion and encourage their children to do something about it . Parents of kids with disabilities need to advocate and be the voice their children expect them to be, to stand up for them , fight for their rightly deserved position and to speak up for them.

You might wonder why we should go out of the way to take all these steps for a handful of students, but my question is: why not? These students deserve just as much respect, dignity and opportunity as any student out there. They dream just like the rest of us, so why should they be left out ?

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Getty image by bowdenimages

Originally published: February 12, 2018
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