“Please, Spare Kids with Special Needs the Pity”

I recently came across a pretty old blog post written by Ellen Seidman from Love That Max. It was titled “Please, Spare Kids with Special Needs the Pity” and critiqued an Irish song called “Unlucky One,” written about a child with Cerebral Palsy. I love Ellen’s writing. She shares her perspective unapologetically and never stops advocating for her son. She is truly changing the landscape for children with special needs by sparking conversation about attitudes like this. My thoughts on this topic are as follows:

We need to stop seeing children with disabilities as people we should feel sorry for. Their disabilities are a part of who they are and how they see the world, but they are so much more than that. When we think of them as the “other,” the people we should feel sorry for, we lose the true human connection we could have had with them. As adults, we need to set a good example by respecting each other’s differences instead of thinking others’ differences are pathetic. True inclusion will happen once we see our peers with special needs as complete equals who do not need our pity. My favorite part of Ellen’s piece: “Our kids deserve respect and equal treatment, not pity.”

Please give Ellen’s post a read:

I have an allergic reaction to pity for Max. When people look at him as if he is pathetic (aka The Pity Stare), or cock their head and say “Awwwwww…” if I mention he has cerebral palsy—even as Max is standing there, looking perfectly happy—my face turns a little blotchy, I have to swallow hard, I get a bit prickly.

Read more here.

‘Elitism?’ Be Careful How You Use that Word

Tracking. It’s a hot topic in education today, a point of controversy. Some say it is the only way to really meet every student’s needs. Others argue that it holds some students back unfairly. To me, it is a modern form of segregation and does not let us think of the lessons we all can learn from working with people with differing abilities from our own.

I recently had the pleasure of reading James Theobald’s blog post, “’Elitism?’ Be Careful How You Use That Word.” In this piece, Mr. Theobald recounts his high school experience of inclusion. His school, located in the UK, used tracking. He had always struggled with reading, so he was in the “bottom set.” One day, one of the teachers came into his class, which was overcrowded, and asked for a few volunteers to move to the “top set.” He obliged.

Mr. Theobald’s post tells us about the effect of providing rich reading and discussion experiences for all of our students, even for our students who struggle the most. He writes about his newfound love for reading:
“ What I really remember is the reading. We read texts from cover to cover. And we read lots. We read To Kill a Mockingbird; we read MacBeth and Romeo and Juliet; we read The Mayor of Casterbridge. And we talked about what we were reading. And something happened to me: I found out I loved reading. I didn’t always understand everything that I was reading (I was lower ability) and I didn’t always enjoy the texts that I was reading. But I enjoyed learning from them. And I learned lots.”

Mr. Theobald was not in a special education setting, but he was considered to be in the “bottom set.” We need to consider our students from whom we continue to withhold precious learning—our students with disabilities. Even if the texts their grade-level peers are reading may be too difficult for some students with disabilities, that does not mean that they can’t learn anything from them (as we learned from Mr. Theobald).

Class discussions can be exciting and rich, teaching all of our students, including those with disabilities, to think about the world around them and grow into leaders. Holding some students back from these learning opportunities would be doing them a great disservice. It would be my greatest joy to someday read a piece by one of my students, describing the time Ms. Hopkins taught them to love learning by encouraging them to join the conversation.

I’d be interested to hear (well… read) your thoughts on this. I know inclusion in the classroom is challenging. How have your students responded to reading (or discussing reading) with their typically-developing peers? Please comment below!

My Proudest Moment

My Proudest Moment5As a mother of twin toddlers, I am living my life in a whirlwind of movement, messes, and occasional mayhem. I have moments of frustration, moments of exhaustion, moments of wonder, and moments of overwhelming pride. Perhaps my proudest moment came the other day in a conversation with my children’s toddler room teacher. Sam and Lilah attend a full-day early childhood program four days per week and for the most part, they do very well in this setting. I always enjoy the things their teachers have to share with me…even the time one of Sam’s teachers told me he called her a “Stinky Man” in an attempt to avoid a nap. Every mother must wonder, “Where do they get these things?”

My Proudest Moment3The “Stinky Man” was not my proudest moment, but it did give me a good chuckle. My proudest moment was when Sam’s teacher told me a story of how my two-year-old stood up for his friend. Sam and another boy, I’ll call him Adam, were looking at a cookbook together in the library. A third boy, who I will call Jack, approached Sam and Adam. Adam said, “Go away, Jack!” Sam looked right at Adam and said, “No, Jack’s my friend, and he can sit here too.” I would be proud of Sam regardless of who Jack or any other child he stuck up for happened to be. But, in this case, Jack happens to be a child who uses very few words. In the middle of the year in a toddler classroom, with many children approaching three years old, it is a language explosion. Children are so proud of their budding ability to communicate their wants and needs. Jack is getting there too but does not have quite as many ways to stick up for himself as his classmates.

Thinking about Sam and the way he stuck up for Jack, I was overwhelmed with pride. Sam sees Jack as his friend and connects with him in ways that do not require words. Sam sees all the things that Jack can contribute and he wants to spend time with him. Jack sees all the things that Sam can contribute and as Jack’s mom says, “follows Sam wherever he goes.” As a KIT Trainer, I promise I have not “trained” my son. Of course I find lots of ways to highlight how people are different and talk, move, and think in different ways.   But I can’t take credit for this one. Sam naturally connected with Jack because they are members of the same classroom community and genuinely enjoy one another’s company. That is inclusion – as natural and genuine as two boys making one another laugh and sharing a cookbook. The part that fills me to the brim with pride is the budding advocate in Sam. He knows that all kids belong and he’s willing to say it…and I could not be any more proud. Unlike the “Stinky Man” I know where he gets this idea. He gets it from the messages we send as his parents and teachers, and in his everyday experiences in an inclusive classroom.       My Proudest Moment1

–Written by Alissa Marotto, KIT staff member.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Growing Up

Growing up, we were very different.  She was outgoing and extraverted, I was shy and introverted.  She was more expressive, while I was more intense and analytical.  She loved to move and was the first to jump up and interact with her surroundings, while I was cautious, detail-oriented and reserved.  That is what seems so ironic about siblings, the person that you are genetically most similar to, you also have many undeniable differences.

As a child, I sensed many of our contrasting traits.  But these characteristics did not affect our connection to each other. Instead, I idolized my sister’s exuberant, social nature.  She was five years older; she was confident and likable.  She would initiate conversation where I froze up, and when we were in new situations without the guidance of our parents, I clung to her desperately because I knew I would be okay when I had her. We made a great team because her strengths made up for my weaknesses and vice versa. Whether it was setting up a tea party in our tree house, creating “bubble land” in our front yard, managing doll daycare, or putting on dance shows for my parents, we were able to use both of our strengths to our advantage. As a young child, I subconsciously recognized the differences in our personalities, but I didn’t notice that my sister had a developmental disability.

Some may say this is the lack of knowledge and the naivety of youth. I tend to disagree. I think it is a mind that has not been impacted by barriers created by society, by the stereotyping of a homogenous culture, by the isolation of people who differ from the social “norms”, by the stigmas of the often ill-educated and hateful language that we communicate with, by a world that says they can’t. I believe that the exposure to this is what caused me to notice the curious stares, the commentary about the little school bus and the “special” activities my sister was a part of. I didn’t think my sister was challenged or difficult, and I felt uncomfortable and confused when I was consistently being described as patient, an angel, and such a sweetheart for simply being a part of my family.

I can remember sitting in our basement with hundreds of pieces of candy, our child sized chalkboard and my 2nd grade double column addition homework.  Feeling uncertain as to why my sister didn’t know how to do double column addition as a middle schooler, I made it my mission to teach her.  In my mind this was a simple task that I was determined to complete. She was my big sister, and she was wiser, she was smarter, she could do it, I just had to show her how.

We drew pictures, we counted candies, started from simple to complex and over and over. Why couldn’t she understand? What was I doing wrong? What could I do to make her learn? I was insistent on my goal so we kept repeating each strategy again and again until we were both yelling and frustrated.  My sister sat with her head down staring at our array of supplies. She looked at me with discouraged eyes; she had failed. She stood up abruptly from our table, and walked away. At that moment, I was heartbroken. I wanted to be there for her, to help her, to teach her as she had often taught me, but I had failed.

This was the moment that I remember realizing that my sister was different, and there was nothing that I could do to change that. After a conversation with my mother, my realization was validated. I was confused about many things, and frankly I don’t think I could have or needed to understand all of the facets that our sibling relationship entailed at eight years old.  The one thing that I did know for sure was that I didn’t love her any less.

As I advanced into the jungle of the preteen years, I found that my sister looked to me more for leadership, that she needed more help from my mom than I did, and our milestones were frequently different.  I often felt embarrassed talking about her to my friends whose sixteen-year-old sisters were learning to drive and dancing on the varsity dance team.  I feared what other people thought of her, that they wouldn’t understand her, that they would make fun of her, view her as incapable, and put her down- I feared this the most.

Growing up with my sister, I have always felt things deeply.  Whether it be guilt, shame, sadness, joy, compassion, humility, anger, the list could continue for pages, but it always culminates with passion. I listen to my sister explain her job to our family friends, watch as she accepts the “Rising Star” award within her Special Recreation Association, or go to brunch together just us two, and I notice her expression of pride and independence. In these moments I feel she is forging through society’s barriers and proving that she can.

Fast forwarding to the present, growing up (and some college classes) has taught me to apply this passion that developed from my relationship with my sister to the Disability Community as a whole. I continue onward working toward a society that values every person as important.  I work daily to create small changes in my community, and I have to constantly remind myself that these changes will someday lead to a world that is free of barriers and includes individuals with differences of all kinds. Sometimes I think to myself, “If only every person could grow up the way I did.” I wish everyone could have a role model, a teacher, a friend, a student, a person, a sister like mine to show them all that life has to offer when you color outside the lines, take the time to learn in an innovative way, communicate through a medium other than words, move with an interesting gait, or express yourself in a manner that is completely distinct to you. Instead of the world perceiving any of these things as a deficiency, an issue, a problem or something to be “helped” or “fixed”, we will only see it as a variation that makes each person uniquely human.

–Written by Sierra Shum, edited by KIT staff.

SierraandChelseaSierra Shum is a recent graduate of Miami University in Ohio.  She received a B.F.A in Painting with a minor in Disability Studies.  Sierra has been involved in many organizations throughout her life with the continual focus to use creativity to foster inclusive environments for individuals with disabilities.  Currently, Sierra serves as Outreach Coordinator at The Center for Enriched Living in the North Suburbs of Chicago.  The Center provides social and recreational opportunities for teens, adults and seniors with developmental disabilities.  Sierra plans to continue her activism through education, creativity and sharing her experiences with the community.

In this post, Sierra writes about her sister Chelsea.  Chelsea is 28 years old and has two jobs in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago.  Chelsea is very active in her community and participates in a variety of different programs through Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association.  Chelsea enjoys singing in choir, acting on stage in her theater productions and meeting with her church group each Tuesday.  She continues to show others how truly wonderful it is to accept and respect people for their differences.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

It’s Testing Season…

… And there’s a lot of tension in the air. At least at my school, teachers are constantly talking about standards and data and rigor. Everyone is stressed out! I needed to take a break from the testing madness and get some thoughts out about why I do what I do and who exactly I do it for.

I teach in an urban school district that is consistently under-performing. (Chicago Public Schools famously reported that in 2006, only 6% of its incoming freshmen would graduate from college. To learn more, you can read this original article from the Chicago Tribune.) I am a strong believer in using quantitative data to inform my teaching, and I believe that we should absolutely measure our success in closing the achievement gap for our students. However, from what I’ve been hearing (and experiencing myself), teachers are so overwhelmed by the emphasis on testing and de-emphasis on the real live kids we teach every day.

Though I am absolutely proud when I see a student ace a classroom test, and I love seeing the numbers that demonstrate that my students are mastering curriculum standards, there is so much more to my students than their test scores. I want everyone to know about how kind Joseph is when he reminds me to pass out homework at the end of class (because I am notorious for forgetting that…), or how thoughtful Sean is when he helps me clean up the materials from class, even though the students have already been dismissed for lunch.

Test scores don’t show the astonishing growth in independence that I’ve seen in Lena when she comes early to school twice each week for extra study time in math, or the pride on her face when she recently got an A on a math test. (I passed the tests out at the beginning of the class period, and she kept it out on the side of her desk for the entire class, occasionally glancing at it and grinning.) The scores may not show that Matthew has finally started to understand the process of long division (after months of hard work), and when he gets it right, his smile extends across his entire face.

The pride my students see in their hard work paying off is not always noticeable on standardized tests, and I want everyone to know how much they have grown as independent thinkers and as citizens who contribute to our school community. To all of my fellow educators out there who are feeling weighed down by standardized testing, I feel your pain. I can only encourage you to see the good happening in your classroom every day, and to point it out to your students when they get frustrated by all of the tests coming their way. Continue to show them how much you care about them and believe in them. At the end of the day, when your students think of you years from now, they may not remember the test scores that you helped them achieve. They will, however, remember exactly how you made them feel, so make your moments with them count.

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.