An honest discussion of disability must begin with an examination of our personal beliefs and perceptions regarding disability. As a teacher, I can be trained in various teaching strategies and given an abundance of resources but unless I believe in the core value of them I won’t apply them in my classroom.
When I was working in a daycare, I remember registering 2 sisters who were both on the autism spectrum. However, this was not what caught my attention. It was their father. He was an engineer but had quit his job to provide care and research resources for his daughters. I was amazed and bewildered because I assumed that both the government and our health care system would provide most of the care and resources. Although he had a social worker who provided information, he still had to filter all the information regarding schools, therapists, workshops and so on. Despite all this, he also did not get services immediately because there were long waiting lists. So what did he do while he was waiting? He stayed home to care for his girls. It wasn’t as simple as watching them. He researched and learned how to teach and stimulate them. This information was not handed to him. This seems to me the most daunting part since he went out on his own to find help while he waited for help and he didn’t have a background in education. It looked like there were many obstacles and bureaucracy before this man when all he needed was a guiding light.
During the summer of 2000, I had the opportunity to work in an orphanage for children with disabilities in China through an organization callled International China Concern. Up to this point, I had yet to be touched personally by disability. This experience caused me to interact with disability on a daily basis for 6 weeks and resulted in my definitions of disability being challenged.
In second grade when we were asked “what we wanted to be when we grew up?” all the other girls answered veterinarians. I didn’t want to be like them, but I did want to work with animals so I answered “A farmer”! That marked the beginning of my ever changing journey to my choice of careers. By the end of elementary school, I decided that my new career would be a marine biologist, because I wanted to work, swim and save the whales. I was obsessed, making posters and researching all the different types of whales. Deciding how I was going to save them from the harm that humans being were causing them. This obsession lasted only about a year and a half. A doctor! That’s what I answered when I was asked what I wanted to be at the end of high school. I looked through anatomy books and was the most attentive student in chemistry and biology class. I applied and got accepted into health sciences in CEGEP. When I got there though, I hit a brick wall. Higher education was nothing like elementary and high school. You actually had to study! I did finish my diploma, but was no longer sure about what I wanted to be. When applying to university I figured I would apply to four different programs figuring I wouldn’t be accepted into all. To my surprise, I had to choose between, a forensic scientist, pre-med, a kineseologist, and a teacher. Ugh!
Most teachers have made use of the visual schedule in their classroom but too often we don't think about how we can make simple adaptations so the visual schedule becomes more effective for our special needs students. As we think about implementing visual schedules for our special needs students here are some things to keep in mind.
It’s funny how life goes…it sometimes takes you somewhere you never thought you’d want to be, yet once you arrive, it’s home. I remember sitting on a park bench on the grounds of Dawson College flipping through the pages of McGill University’s Course and Program Guide wondering what I wanted to study. I really had no idea. I settled on Education because it seemed to be a safe bet. Nope. I was not that child that dreamed of being a teacher one day. I chose Elementary Education but the university had other plans for me and placed me in Secondary. And away I went…right to the end…and landed a job in a large, inner city high school teaching my subject specialization and learning the ins and outs of how a school/classroom is managed safely and effectively, like every other new teacher. It was in that very first year that I quickly learned that the best way to reach a student is to create a bond. I taught 10 different groups with an average of 25 students in each. Do the Math….I taught about 250 students that year. Talk about a variety of challenges! Drugs, truancy, major attitudes, delinquency, et cetera, et cetera…It was a lot. However, that one student, who sat at the back of the class, who said nothing during class discussions, who was the last one to leave the classroom after a test and who left behind an enormous amount of pulled-straight-from-the-root hair on his desk as a symbol of his frustration …it was that student who grabbed my specific attention. His writing was almost illegible and his spelling was completely phonetic. At a glance it could be dismissed as nonsense but I was determined to break the code. And I did. With the help of another, we read it out loud just sounding out the words and there it was…all of the answers to my test questions were there! I’d like to say that others shared my excitement but I would be lying. This one child, out of a roster of 250, would require a lot of extra time and attention to access and assess his learning. I had never taken a course on special needs or gifted students. I took it upon myself to begin reading up on learning disabilities and the following year I voluntarily began teaching the special needs classes. With each passing year I attended conferences and learned so much about my students, about their needs and how to reach them. I found a patience within myself I never thought I had and I found a warrior too, one who would fight on their behalf for resources, modified curricula, and against discrimination. I am currently teaching in a special needs high school, working with students aged 18-22 in a work-oriented program teaching functional Math, English and French as well as job skills and life skills. I love my job. I am greeted with twenty genuine, eager smiles every school day. That girl who sat on a park bench on the grounds of Dawson College, flipping through McGill University’s Course and Program Guide, wondering what on earth she was meant to do…has found her niche.
By the time my son was four, I had tried all kinds of tactics when enrolling him in a new daycare. Sometimes I would warn the teachers vaguely that his behaviour was peculiar: "Er...he tends to zone out sometimes..." Sometimes I would be specific and bombard them: "He was born with severe damage to the left brachial plexus nerves resulting in partial paralysis. He displays autistic tendencies, demonstrates speech Apraxia and fails to progress beyond parallel play. Oh, and he has feeding issues and probably won't touch the lunch you provide." Once, I said absolutely nothing at all. I half hoped they wouldn't call me to discuss my son and half hoped they WOULD call me which at the very least would show me they were worth their jellybeans and were equipped to recognize some substantial developmental delays when presented with them. They did call.
There are definitely moments I am not proud of when I reflect upon my life. Yet even in those experiences I have been shaped to become who I am today. One of these moments happened the first time I encountered disability. During my summer days as a teenager one of my tasks was to watch my sister. This included taking care of her general well being (meals and safety) and helping her with her summer review work. I loathed helping my sister with her summer review work. I saw my sister as slow and someone who could never do anything just right. After giving my sister her summer review work this was the usual scenario in our house. I would go back to the couch to continue my TV watching while my sister worked on her assigned math pages. I would look up every now and then to see how she was doing. Since she wasn’t complaining and her pencil was moving I wouldn’t see any reason to get up to see how she was doing. I figured if she needed help she would ask for it. When my sister was finished, I would take the workbook and begin marking it with my red pen. The more I marked, the higher I would feel my blood pressure go. Despite having worked on multiplication repeatedly, she would be still getting every single question wrong. My “X”s would be written with more force and become larger on the page with each question. Finally about half way through, I would start ranting and belittling my sister. My sister would stare and eventually I would just walk away.
In every subculture of our society, there are unique facets and experiences you only learn the more you immerse yourself. The special needs community is no exception. After being actively involved in the special needs community for over 10 years as a teacher, I was exposed to the parental experience by a close friend looking for help with her 5 year old autistic son, Mark, and their preschool situation. Previous to this preschool, Mark had been attending an integrated preschool where he received ABA therapy and participated in a half day preschool class consisting of neurotypical children and children on the autism spectrum. The adult to child ratio was also low. He had succeeded in this environment but with kindergarten in the near future, my friend wanted to see if Mark could succeed with less formal assistance. In September, Mark had started off at the new preschool well. He followed the routines and participated in classroom activities fairly independently without a 1:1 shadow. Periodically, there were reports of difficult behaviours but it seemed the preschool was able to cope. After Christmas, it was a different story. There were more reports of disruptive behaviour, difficulty following the routine and the need for one of the educators to be with Mark more than was actually possible. At this point, my friend was told Mark would be unable to attend the preschool unless a shadow was present. My friend was surprised at the seemingly sudden change of events and unsure of how to proceed. After contacting her social worker, my friend found out she would be on her own. As her daycare was a private daycare, there would be no subsidy provided for the shadow she was to hire. On top of this, even if there was to be a subsidy there was little to no assistance from government services to find a shadow. My friend was not only concerned about where to find a shadow and the costs to be incurred but also the quality of the shadow. How would she know if the shadow was actually participating in teaching her child and not merely babysitting him through the routines? My friend was unsure where to go in this situation and knowing I had experience with special needs children asked me to visit the preschool with Mark to see what the situation really was like. It's not that she didn't trust the preschool educators. She just needed an objective opinion regarding Mark's behaviours in the classroom. After spending a morning in Mark's preschool classroom, I spoke to my friend and confirmed a shadow would be best. I was also able to advise her on some strategies a shadow could employ with Mark to help him become more independent in the classroom. This experience opened my eyes to see the difficulty parents of special needs children can have in navigating the system and getting the best educational outcome for their child. Their desire to have the best for their child is thwarted by logistics, limitations and a lack of concrete guidance to see the overall picture. I also saw how teachers can be limited in their abilities to help special needs students. Training in education programs are minimal and teachers are often learning on the job. I also saw the lack of co-ordination between government services and private services to provide aid to floundering parents. It is my hope to help bridge these gaps. So look forward to reading posts about my teaching experiences, thoughts about special needs and how I adapted teaching strategies to best help my special needs students. Links to relevant news aritcles and resources will also be provided. I'll also be featuring personal stories from different persons influenced by people with special needs.