“That’s not fair! Why does Timmy get fewer spelling words than I do?”
Some disabilities are obvious, while others are more hidden. Facilitating a conversation around disabilities can help students understand them more and treat other students with respect. Ultimately, teaching empathy to children can be one of the most difficult and rewarding tasks as a teacher.
Based on my experience of teaching both general and special education, I have found some ways to speak to my students about disabilities that may be helpful to others. However, I aim to continue learning more, so feel free to let me know what has worked for you too!
Strategies and activities for talking about disabilities
- Discuss common disabilities and differences to help students understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. For example: “A lot of students like you need glasses in order to read the board. Some students need a wheelchair to get around the room. Other people need hearing aids to hear better.”
- Like many of our personal traits, some disabilities are not seen. Have students list disabilities they may not be able to see with their eyes. Talk about how some disabilities are not always physically apparent (such as hearing loss) and that even though we look alike, we all have different needs (and that’s okay!). Learning about these types of disabilities can help students understand that even if they can’t see it, everyone needs help in different ways.
- Turn the conversation towards similarities. Start listing some activities, foods, and games while having students raise their hands if they’re interested in them to see who likes the same things. I even once asked the class to raise their hand if they want to be treated with kindness and respect… an easy win.
Discussing learning disabilities (I prefer to call them ‘learning differences’) can be tricky because they’re harder for children to understand compared to more obvious disabilities. It’s important to keep conversations general, so that students are not singled out. That brings me to the quote at the beginning of this post: “That’s not fair! Why does Timmy get fewer spelling words than I do?”
To that, I responded softly, “It may be hard to understand, but it actually is fair. Fair means everyone gets what they need to do well in school.” This was brilliantly described to me by one of my college professors, and I believe its meaning extends beyond just schoolwork for children. I went on, “Everyone learns differently. We all have our strengths and our needs. Some students need more help in spelling while others need more help in math. Even I need help at school by staying organized and on schedule, you know that!” which resulted in a giggle.
What strategies, activities, and techniques have you tried when talking to students about people with disabilities? What worked and what didn’t? Let me know by going on TeachersConnect and joining the conversation there.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.