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?