We used “the D word” a lot in one of my classes recently.
No, not that one. For those teaching high school students with disabilities,
the D word is “disability.” It’s one of those words that your students don’t
like to hear. Recently, my district implemented a self-advocacy and disability
awareness initiative. Part of the program was a survey given to students and
parents to assess how much information stakeholders knew about a student’s
disability. Surprisingly, the survey revealed that both students and parents
knew very little about a student’s disability. Some parents even angrily denied
having a student with a disability.
The results from this survey drive our self-advocacy program
in the district. I am a strong believer in educating students with disabilities
about how a disability affects them, what accommodations they can use to
overcome deficits, and setting goals to improve weak areas.
In order to teach self-advocacy effectively, you must
believe in it whole-heartedly because you will
face opposition from students. I want to share what I think are some of the
most important topics to cover in self-advocacy and what I have learned that
you might be able to use when you teach self-advocacy to your students.
1. What is my
In my first self-advocacy lesson, I break the news to my
students that they have a disability. For many of my students, this lesson may
be the first time they realize that they have a disability. Students might have
trouble accepting this fact if this is the first time a student has been told
he or she has a disability. I explain to them what having a disability means.
Disability does not equal dumb or slow.
However, I do not sugar-coat a disability. I know some
teachers who will soften the impact of having a disability by saying that
everyone has a disability and that nothing is different about these students. While
everyone has a weakness, not everyone has a documented disability. If a student
thinks that everyone has a disability and his weaknesses are no different from
any other weaknesses, he may be less likely to identify as someone with a
documented disability and fail to capitalize on the rights and resources
available for students with disabilities.
After telling students they have a disability, we focus on
what a student’s specific disability is (i.e. specific learning disability,
other health impairment, emotional disability, or intellectual disability—I
refuse to call them “educably mentally disabled/handicapped” even though that
is what the IEP says.). This might not sound like a lot of information to cover
in one lesson, but I find that this information is about all my students can
handle for one lesson.
2. What are accommodations?
I teach an accommodations lesson fairly early in the
semester because the students will need to know what accommodations they have
available during the semester to succeed in their classes. I start with very
obvious disabilities and accommodations because it is easy for my students to
understand these examples. By seeing the need for a person in a wheel chair to
have access to an elevator, they can understand why they might need extra time
on an assignment or oral administration of a test.
3.How does my disability affect me?
As the semester
progresses and students become more aware that they have a disability, I ask
them to reflect on how a disability may affect them (another
example of using the daily journal). Journals, surveys, and inventories
help the students reflect on how a disability affects them. Being aware of a
disability is a first step in being able to overcome one.
4. What are rights for a person with a disability?
One important thing I want students to know when they leave
my class is the rights they have as a student with a disability, but more
importantly, as a person with a disability. The self-advocacy program in my
district is focused on getting students to participate in IEP meetings. Currently,
each student attends his or her IEP meeting, many contribute to the IEP, and a
few write major portions of the IEP.
However, in my class I feel it is more important to focus on
self-advocacy skills that the students will use long after high school. Because
I teach employment training, I focus on rights for people with disabilities
related to employment. We talk about questions that you should not answer in an
interview or on an application, as well as discrimination and harassment in the
workplace, and what a reasonable accommodation is in the workplace setting.
Many other rights related to employment are important for my students to know.
What experience do you have teaching self-advocacy skills?
Were you surprised by how little students and parents knew about a disability?