Societal attitudes and behaviors have a significant impact on the inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act and various civil rights movements, the effects of negative perceptions of disability are still prevalent in structural and social contexts today. Because of these constructs, children with disabilities experience several challenges in classroom and playground settings. Teachers, school administrators, and counselors have the potential to reshape some of these attitudes and behaviors by creating opportunities for students to learn that disability and diversity are natural and by giving them positive school and playtime experiences with classmates who learn and do things differently.
When I was injured 13 years ago, I was a single parent with 3 children. My oldest daughter, Tesia, was 13, Kayla was 8, and my youngest, Mario, was 7 years old. Once I got through rehabilitation and we began transitioning into our new way of life, one of our biggest hurdles was figuring out what school life and playtime were going to look and feel like for a quadriplegic mom with three kids, one of which (my son) had ADHD and extreme anger issues.
It takes an educator who truly cares to make a difference in their students’ lives. That will not only make things a whole lot easier on the student with the disability, but it will also change the attitudes and behaviors of the entire group.
Individuals with disabilities often encounter negative attitudes and behaviors in the community and in school. This is especially true for wheelchair users because the chair is often the first thing people notice, rather than the actual individual. These preconceived notions and resulting actions stem from generations of learned experience and stereotypes. The first step in creating change is for school staff to analyze their own negative beliefs about disability and students’ ability to thrive in society. For my family, teachers that had minimal personal involvement with disability were the most difficult to work with. Because of this, my son would struggle in school.
The best experience we had was with Mario’s third-grade teacher who also had a son with a disability. The class was mixed and included students from a special needs program that specialized in behavior issues like my son’s. He not only ensured that the classroom environment was adapted to the needs of his students, but he also saw to it that the classroom was accessible to the quadriplegic mom that would come in from time to time. Students without disabilities got the opportunity to encounter and interact with many forms of abilities, and the extra effort to make my family comfortable in the environment helped my son succeed both academically and socially.
The biggest emotion that hinders change is fear. Kids and adults alike seek to fit in and satisfy a certain image, and part of creating that image is determined by who we associate with. Therefore, being seen with someone who looks or acts differently generates a fear of being perceived as different or disabled. It’s pretty silly if you think about it. Just because I use a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean you will lose your ability to walk if you play with me.
We need to start teaching children to believe in themselves as their own unique person and that learning from those who are different from ourselves only makes us stronger and wiser. Appreciating others and learning from them is a skill we can apply toward achieving academic and career success, and developing these social skills also enriches our personal lives and emotional health.
Ability Awareness Days are an excellent form of schoolwide or classroom initiatives to give students, educators, and administrators an opportunity to receive in-person training from the perspective of individuals with disabilities. These types of events can be set up in many forms. One common way is to have a schoolwide assembly and bring in someone with a disability to present. Another method is to have several stations set up throughout the school. Students can be split up into groups that rotate through the presentations at predetermined time intervals. This is a fun experience as a volunteer presenter and provides students with the chance to learn and ask questions.
Some topic ideas for presenters include:
I first started presenting at Ability Awareness Days at McMillan Elementary School four years after my injury. I was introduced to the program by Diana Pastor, Founder of Ability Awareness. In 2016, I was awarded Ability Awareness Hero of The Year by Channel KPBS & Union Bank, and a mini-documentary about my story and efforts in the community aired every day for Disability Awareness Month that year.
I have since integrated Ability Awareness Days into the programming of my family’s nonprofit, Rolling With Me. We teach students and staff about disability, inclusion, and how to create a welcoming school experience for every pupil regardless of ability or background.
After educators, administrators, and students have learned about each other’s social, learning, and structural needs and how to respectfully communicate, the next step is to have fun and create positive playtime and learning experiences. This can be challenging at first, but like anything else when living with a disability, you learn to adapt to each situation as it comes. Here are five key adaptations to consider:
Each group will be as unique as the students themselves and so will the structure where playtime and learning will take place. First, analyze the environment, activities, and participants. Consider your space, materials, and equipment. Modify the activities based on student ability. Group students with greater abilities with classmates who may have challenges, but make sure an individual with a disability isn’t signaled out by being the only one with a partner. Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal. If one student requires a partner for an activity, everyone should have a partner.
Bright Hub Education is a great tool for games and educational activities based on ability and function. If you have a student with sensory or behavioral challenges that you cannot create a modification for, provide alternatives like a bean bag to sit on, quiet reading time, or Legos to play with. If there are students that need additional adult help, that should be arranged for as well. The key is to ensure that every student feels included. It’s important they each understand that everyone learns and engages differently yet they still have the opportunity to play equally. If someone needs to adapt an activity to their ability or could benefit from a break, they should be allowed to do so.
For my son, he functioned well when he was able to focus on time management. In order for him to have a good day, he needed to know what his schedule was going to look like for each activity. His teacher set up a daily agenda which was displayed on his desk. We adopted this coping skill at home as well and bought him a watch to help him keep track of his daily schedule. When he felt overwhelmed or tired, he had access to a bean bag or Legos once his work was complete. As a wheelchair user, I needed classroom and school ground structural access. Most importantly, we both needed an environment free of social barriers.
I now teach these concepts through our mission at Rolling With Me in hopes of giving other families living with challenges the chance to be included. If we provide our kids with opportunities for social interaction through positive play and learning time, we can shape their future adult perspective of disability and instill the importance of equal access.
Or, find a peer support group near you using our helpful reference guide!
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About the Author
Comfort Medical Ambassador Margarita Elizondo is a motivational speaker, entrepreneur, producer/host of Wheel Talk Wheel Issues, model, author and an ambassador for the Los Angeles Abilities Expo. She was paralyzed in 2006 after an intruder broke into her home. Now, a single mother of three and grandmother, she pursues a degree in Communication at Grossmont Community College and works for Axia Management where she designed a wireless phone service for seniors and individuals with disabilities. As Ms. Wheelchair California 2013, she is a strong advocate in the disability community and volunteers for numerous nonprofits. You can reach her on Facebook or through www.margaritaelizondo.com.