I know how people will react when they hear what I do for a living.
“Wow, you teach children with special needs? You must have so much patience! I could never do that! I guess it takes a special person.”
I try to respond with humility, but if I’m being honest, every special education teacher knows this simple fact: it doesn’t take anything special to love a person with special needs, just a little education.
Recognizing Our Limited Inclusion
“Inclusion” is a buzzword right now. In education it’s meant to describe a strategy of education that includes all peers in a general education classroom despite different levels of academic ability or achievement. This often means you’ll find someone who is hearing impaired or dyslexic learning to identify past participles next to someone who doesn’t have a disability.
But that inclusion doesn’t reach to my students.
Inclusion is hard on teachers. They must differentiate their class work in order to make it both accessible and challenging for all. They must learn to teach using methods they might not prefer. But most difficult perhaps is the hundreds of pages of IEPs, BIPs, documentation of modifications and accommodations, behavioral data, and legal paperwork teachers must keep up with in order to prove their students get the law-given standard of education. It takes more time than the actual teaching.
Including my students would obviously add more to the teacher’s plate. They have more severely classified disabilities that limit their academic achievement to several grade levels below their peers. And many of them behave in ways that would be difficult to include in a productive, fast-paced learning environment (loud vocalizations, extremely antisocial, extremely social and unaware of personal space, possibility of aggression, to name a few).
Inclusion is also difficult for parents to understand. Some parents of special needs children don’t want their vulnerable children exposed to bullying. Some worry their students’ needs will be overlooked in a large classroom. But usually that’s not the parent that worries. it’s the honor student’s mom worrying that including “special education” in his class is going to slow down her son or daughter’s education and limit their potential.
Look at high-achieving private schools. Do they have any special education programs to speak of? Any students with profound disabilities? Not usually.
But one major reason this might be the case is that people don’t know how to interact with people with disabilities.
An Education in Difference Requires Proximity
For example, think of how you react when you see someone in a wheelchair coming toward you. Or someone helping guide their blind son. My guess is you’re scared. Probably not because people with disabilities look different than you, but because you worry you’ll do something offensive. A thousand questions come into your mind like: should I shake his hand even if he doesn’t see me offer mine? Will she understand my question if I ask her how she is? Did I look too long? Did I not hold eye contact long enough?
It can be difficult, and I get it. But the big secret about how to treat people with disabilities is this: include them in every courtesy, respect, gesture of goodwill that you would extend to any other person.
For example, “May I shake your hand?” Ask her how she’s doing, and address her as a person of her age and dignity. Make eye contact and smile and say “Hi.”
It’s really that simple.
But no one knows how to have normal interactions with those with special needs because the only people who spend quality time with their peers with disabilities are those who elect to. Those are the students who sign up to take members of a special education classroom to PE, or spend an elective playing board games to help practice social skills.
Because we created a system solely of election, the majority of students elect out of learning empathy and befriending their peers with disabilities. And what they get instead is the disability of not learning to understand those who seem fundamentally different than them.
Those same students grow up and graduate from even more insulated universities and they go into their jobs and they still don’t really know how to befriend someone who is different than them. And this isn’t just befriending someone with a disability. They don’t know how to befriend someone who is different in culture, in race, in ability, in political affiliation, in religion. Our innate and systemic biases grow because we were never really challenged to see someone else’s needs as significant.
And so what we miss is a richness of empathy. We miss diversity of abilities. We miss beauty when it isn’t profitable and we miss dignity because we never learned where it resides. A whole population of human beings is confined to their bedrooms in their parents’ homes, or the adult day care center, or the long term care facility, because when school is done no one is quite sure what to do with them. Most see that their peers special needs are significant but very few have made their needs significant to themselves.
Extending the Golden Rule to People with Disabilities
That’s what I do for living: I regard the significant needs of my students as significant to myself. It isn’t a special calling so much as it’s every Christian’s call to care and decency.
When you invite someone to your home at dinner time, you give them food, because the need is significant to you both.
I pray one day my daughter plays with the girl with special needs at the playground, because she knows and shares her significant need to feel connection through friendship by inclusion. I share that need, too. We all do.
Our educational system would increase in value if we went further with inclusion and taught our kids to consider the significant needs of all their peers by including, when at all possible, not just those with a shot at keeping up, but everyone. That’s not my end game, it’s just the beginning. Because once we’ve learned to interact with differences, I think that people with disabilities will and should be more readily included in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our recreation, our friendships. Inclusion is much more than an educational strategy.
Our brothers and sisters who live with disabilities have a long way to take us, if we’ll just look at them.