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. Disability has been regarded as a human constant but views of disability continue to change with time. Two broad models have been used to understand disability. The first model is the medical and individual model. Under the umbrella of the medical and individual model persons with disabilities took on the ‘sick role’ exempting them from everyday normal responsibilities and expectations. Their recovery was dependent upon medical professionals. If their “sickness” was long term then thoughts of recovery were to be dismissed and dependence and second-class citizenship should be accepted. The person was to accept their disability and learn to adapt to the society around them though rehabilitation. In the medical and individual model, those without disabilities spoke for those with disabilities. Disabled persons were overlooked as people without thoughts, emotions and ability to contribute to society and thus were relegated to being medical anomalies. As activists fought for the rights of persons with disabilities, it became apparent a different model of disability was needed. The social model of disability began as a way to allow the voices of disabled persons to be heard. The social model views disability as culturally produced and the definition of disability comes into question as it is seen as something created to place hierarchal order in society by those in power. It challenges cultural definitions of who a disabled person is and what possibilities are present for disabled persons. Disability is a part of the person but the disability does not wholly define the person. The social model also explores how a disabled person views themselves. Recent Olympian, Oscar Pistorius, describes the social model well when he says, “You are not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”
What are the practical implications of these two models for my teaching? If I view my special needs students under the medical and individual model, I have preconceived notions regarding their abilities before I have begun to teach. I have pigeon holed their educational potential. If I view my special needs students under the social model, I teach seeing my special needs students as I would the “normal” student in my class by recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. I capitalize on their strengths so that their strengths help them cope with their weaknesses. I push my special needs students, just as I would the “normal” student, to reach their next individual level of learning. This is not to say a special needs student might have real limitations or that the medical community cannot give valuable insight. It is only to say that as a teacher I still have a responsibility to recognize limitations whilst providing opportunities and experiences for real growth be it socially, emotionally, physically or academically. The medical and individual model and the social model of disability also dictate how I will use the teaching strategies and resources put before me. In the medical and individual model, I will use what seems to make sense for the disability whereas in the social model, I will use whatever might just work knowing each student with a disability is unique.
As a teacher, I am a constant learner and part of my learning comes through reflective practice. I can complain about not having enough training to teach my special needs students or about the suggested strategies and resources not working in my real life classroom but unless I start with my own perceptions regarding disability it is likely the complaints will always be present.