Talking to Your Class about Students with Disabilities

Teaching students with disabilities
At some point in every student’s life, they will work with a classmate who has a disability.

I remember the first time as a child that I noticed a student with cerebral palsy: Our class was heading down a hallway as first-graders do, single file, trying not to trip on our own shoelaces.

As we turned a corner, I saw that student and his aide pass by us. After staring back for too long, my teacher tapped my shoulder and whispered, “Please don’t stare at them, that’s rude.” This is a common response: telling a staring child to look away.

This kind of experience can lead students to learn that asking questions or giving attention to students with disabilities is inappropriate. Instead, if the teacher had asked me what I was wondering about, it could have led to a learning opportunity. If questions aren’t answered, students can start confusing disabilities with something ‘bad’ and misunderstand what they really are.

How to have a conversation with your class on students with disabilities:

Answering questions about disabilities in general helps improve understanding and compassion. A private conversation with a student (after they point out someone in the hall) or a discussion with your entire class can open a path towards empathy and disability awareness. The discussion can go in many directions: where disabilities come from, what kinds of disabilities there are, similarities and differences between students, etc. I even had a student ask if they could ‘catch’ a disability. In my experience (which may not work for every class), regardless of where the questions start to go, it’s important to:

  • Keep the conversation general rather than about someone specific.
  • Teach students that even though everyone has differences (some we can see and some we can’t see), we are more alike than we think.
  • Remind students that no matter who you are, everyone wants to be treated with kindness and respect.

Teaching students to be caring towards each other is an on-going task. Let’s fill students’ curiosity about disabilities with knowledge (and maybe even more curiosity) rather than telling them to look the other way. Conversations and answers can help students keep an open mind and build better relationships in the future. Keep an eye out for a second post on specific examples and activities you can try with your students on the topic of understanding disabilities.

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Dan Staton is a former elementary and special education teacher. He currently works as the designer at TeachersConnect, an online community built by teachers. Let him know your thoughts and stories at dan@teachersconnect.com.