Differently-abled students put on a play and learn about acceptance, too.
There is a form of prejudice in our society that surrounds disability -- a discomfort, a subtle fear of that which is different and unfamiliar. It manifests as pity, avoidance or mockery. When we see someone with a profound disability, a fleeting thought occurs: "What if that were me?" from which we quickly turn with a shudder.
Naturally, many people, especially young people, tend to avoid those who make us feel uncomfortable or guilty. Not knowing how to act or respond to someone very different can be scary, especially for a young person. What if he can't shake hands? Should I pat him on the shoulder? Maybe she walks unsteadily. Will she fall? Will I hurt her if I try to help? What if I say the wrong thing?
Bringing students with disabilities into general education classrooms should result in true, long-term acceptance. How inclusion happens varies with every school. The approaches range from including students with disability on every level with no separation to maintaining self-contained classrooms with only periodic mingling of students. Only when attitudes are inclusive, however, will classrooms naturally follow.
Disability education brings attitudes to the surface, where they can be examined consciously, rather than putting students together and hoping for the best. It's not surprising that, despite the best of intentions, students with disabilities who participate in inclusion programs may continue to feel left out.
Isabelle St. Onge, special education teacher at Taos High School in Taos, N.M., watched this very scenario unfold for years. Her students were entering general education classes, but contact and real acceptance remained elusive. In the lunchroom, the kids with disabilities sat separately. No one approached them, came up and said "Hi" or joined them. St. Onge began to formulate the necessary ingredients for authentic acceptance.
"Over the years of working with inclusion on a high school level," St. Onge explains, "I've really seen changes that happen to the general education population when they get to meet students with severe and profound disabilities, and learn lessons of compassion and tolerance. They're better people when they go out into the world after graduating, and they've already learned to accept someone as different as my students."
These students include (names have been changed):
Todd uses an electric wheelchair as a result of cerebral palsy. He is very aware of what's going on around him, but he can't speak, walk or use his hands very well.
Ginnette's impaired hearing has led to her to be shy, withdrawn and stubborn. It takes a little work to understand her speech and to cut through her "tough girl" facade to the point that she'll tell you about her love for journal writing.
Alicia, who has cerebral palsy, can walk unevenly but cannot speak. Her uncontrollable drooling is her biggest social challenge.
Louis had brain damage as a baby, which continues to limit his learning ability. With one side of his body partially paralyzed, he is still able to walk, talk and function very well.
Tony appears to be an average high school student: bright, active, good-looking, friendly. But an unusual brain dysfunction keeps Tony at an elementary level of mental ability.
As St. Onge began contemplating an experimental project, she asked me if I would participate. I had worked briefly with her two years earlier on a small-scale inclusion project with the drama class at Taos (N.M.) High. I talked to the students there about the specifics and generalities of disability, since, as a result of a car crash, I have been using a wheelchair since my teenage years. I also gave pointers to the girl who was playing the part of a paralyzed student in the short play they were putting on. That project was an effort of the general ed drama class to educate peers about disability awareness.
The project St. Onge had in mind now went to the core of inclusion -- integrating her entire class of kids with severe and profound disabilities with a general ed Folk Culture class across the hall. The program would culminate in a play and puppet show performed by both groups.
"The key point to the success of this idea is thoroughly educating the general ed kids and having something concrete for the two classes to do together," St. Onge explained. "When they work together on a project, in addition to getting lesson plans specifically about disability, they integrate with each other in a concrete and lasting way. The experience goes much deeper than sitting side by side in an 'inclusive' setting." She predicted it would ultimately change the way these kids see each other and their world.
Folk Culture was a new course at the school, and most of the students who signed up for the class were counting on an "easy pass," reports St. Onge. Learn a few dances, sing a few songs, read about a foreign land or two, lots of time for chatting with classmates -- nothing to it.
The class represented a wide variety of academic abilities, personality types and levels of motivation. And on top of this, none of them had ever acted or participated in putting on a play. A sample of the students included (names have been changed):
Roger, towering at six feet, the star of the school's basketball team, emerged as a natural leader for the project.
Eloy, a gang member transplanted from Los Angeles, swaggered around school, tattooed and speaking his own type of language, not too keen on the idea of integrating with anyone in either class.
Michael, a soft-spoken young man, was accommodating in class but nonetheless failing several courses.
Elise was angry and rebellious, with lots of eye-rolling. "Do we have to do this?"
After all, this is how real life unfolds in the "adult world." We work together with all sorts of abilities and personalities, and we learn to accept and know people through work-place situations. Once the myths and mysteries surrounding a false stereotype are removed, diversity can be appreciated rather than avoided. And when experience is the teacher, education is at its best; knowledge remains firmly rooted.
Week 1-5: Breaking the Ice
Folk Culture teacher Larry Torres began the first phase by conducting a discussion that unveiled how his students felt around people with disability. They shared stories about friends and relatives and other personal experiences, but not without trepidation. Sensitive to their discomfort but aware that attitudes won't change as long as they're hidden or denied, Torres repeatedly stressed the need to be honest.
Teachers can be excellent role models in these situations by speaking openly and reassuringly about their own responses to unfamiliar situations and by pointing out commonalities beyond the disability. I once heard a teacher speak to her elementary class at length about feeling very uncomfortable about, even horrified by, a particular child's disfigurement. Brute honesty, however, may reinforce fears and stereotypes. She would have done better to focus on the child's joy, which she eventually mentioned, and to speak about her own feelings as being unnatural and uninformed.
In the second week, a guest speaker with disability spoke to the Folk Culture class. Types of speakers for class presentations can include parents or grown siblings of a student with disability; community members with various disabilities; a doctor, special ed director or teacher, occupational therapist or speech therapist; or the director of an independent living program or an Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) center.
"How do you go to the bathroom?"
"Do you ever get depressed?"
"Did you think your life was over?"
"How do you drive a car?
"What are the worst things people have said to you?"
I answered each question directly and honestly, hoping to dispel some of the misconceptions the students had.
Later in the week, the Folk Culture students began sensitivity training sessions conducted by St. Onge and Torres. The most challenging component of the session for the students was spending a day in a wheelchair. St. Onge was able to borrow two manual wheelchairs from the families of students who use electric wheelchairs. (Manual chairs are often kept for traveling and backup.)
During this activity, students obviously benefited from the presence of someone who was living every day in a wheelchair -- me. I showed them how to maneuver and how to transfer without using leg movements. At first, they had some fun, practicing "wheelies," but the students took the exercise seriously. They listened intently as I stressed that the only way the would really benefit was by being aware of the challenges and not cheating.
"Really pretend that you can't get up or move your legs," I told them. "If you drop something, you may have to ask a classmate to get it for you. If you need a drink from a water fountain, you may have to get a cup."
During the day, the students went from class to class and afterwards came together to share the results.
"My arms hurt from trying to lift myself onto the toilet."
"Some of the other kids looked at me strange."
"It seemed like I was always asking for help with something."
As the day when both classes would meet came closer, St. Onge visited the Culture class, and gave presentations to the general ed students about each of the students in the special ed class with whom they would be working. She explained how each student became disabled, what his or her life is like today, and how best to communicate with him or her. Photographs helped students begin to identify their peers with disability as individuals.
During the fourth week, as the winter holiday season approached, the two groups were brought together in the same room for the first time for a party. It was pretty uncomfortable at first, St. Onge recalls, and the teachers had to make many suggestions to get the interaction rolling. "Sam, why don't you offer Felicia some cookies." "Louis, help Raymond throw the basketball from his wheelchair." The teachers asked students from both classes to initiate contact. Mostly, the two groups stayed separate, but it was obvious they were "checking each other out."
The following week, more guest speakers presented, now to the combined classes, each on an aspect of disability or special ed. The speakers talked about creating positive attitudes and answered questions to help students understand disability from all angles.
Having all the students together for these presentations helped further the bonding process. Disability became something that was "OK" to talk about, not something to hide or feel ashamed of.
Week 6-8: Coming Together
The first signs of social interaction and acceptance occurred during the sixth week of the project when Larry Torres taught both groups a folk dance together. The students in wheelchairs watched with delight as some of the general ed students, buoyed by the music and laughter, helped special ed students who weren't too steady on their feet.
Some boys took Raymond to the gym to practice shooting hoops. A group of girls had a make-up session with Angie. Others taught Robert how to spin a yo-yo. By this time, the teachers were noticing more eye contact, some laughter and joking, and the beginnings of a relaxed environment.
The time had come to begin working on the main event of the project -- the play. The teachers had contacted a young man in the community -- a writer, who also happened to have a hearing impairment -- who had graduated from high school a few years earlier. He was recruited to write the play and help to direct the students with the puppeteering.
The play was about a new girl in school, Felicia, who happens to have cerebral palsy. She is quickly befriended by an able-bodied classmate, Cathy, who is intrigued by Felicia's sign language. Unfortunately, Cathy's boyfriend, Billy, and his friends insult and mock the new girl and some other kids in the special ed class, which infuriates Cathy. She asks her teacher if the class can do a puppet show on the subject of famous people with different disabilities and have all the schools in the district come to see it.
Although the teacher agrees, the district administration does not. They are not willing to have other schools miss class time or be bused to the show. The high school kids stage a protest strike, and finally the administration relents and approves the show.
In the play within the play, commentators Franklin D. Roosevelt (polio) and Katherine Hepburn (Parkinson's disease) introduce Beethoven (deafness) and Ray Charles (blindness), who meet through a warp in time. The two musicians share their talents through scenes full of humor and insight. Cathy's price for forgiveness of Billy: that he participate in the puppet show; he grudgingly consents. As a result of the puppet show, several characters, most notably Billy, learn valuable lessons of acceptance.
Excited about the play, the group broke into different teams: some would be actors, others helped to make the large puppets, and still others worked on preparing a set, selling ads for the program and making copies of scripts. As with any group of kids, some were more active than others. It helped to remind them that, in this course, attitudes earned credit.
The play was performed in the community auditorium for several other schools and for the general public in two sold-out evening showings. The local newspaper gave it kudos, as did several letters from audience members.
The most remarkable feature of the play was that it included the special ed students. This was the most valuable lesson to the community, so much more than the plot's message. It was enlightening for many in the audience to see these kids up there on stage, the ones who had never been on stage before, side by side with gang members and teen mothers and college-bound honor students.
But the greatest success was to watch and hear the changes among students.
During one rehearsal, Louis seemed to be missing during a lunch break. We were looking for him when one of the general ed students said, "Oh, he went out to lunch with Roger and Danny." Roger and Danny are two of the school's best basketball players. Later Louis told us, "Yeah, I never went out to lunch with friends before. It was cool."
The P.E. coach reported overhearing one of our students telling another boy to "knock it off" for making fun of someone. Robert's mom told us this was the first time he had been in a class project that required him, just like regular students, to stay after school for a rehearsal or practice.
Students with disability desperately need this type of authentic social interaction with a wide variety of peers in order to develop self-esteem and a sense of belonging to a larger community beyond the world of disability. We can't expect students, or teachers for that matter, to suddenly overcome their discomfort just because they have a student with disability sitting in their classroom. We need a "next step" solution toward the eventual goal of a truly inclusive school system and society.
But can this "change" last? St. Onge saw a dream come true last May when, two years after this project, students at Taos High School voted Louis, now a graduating senior, to be Prom King. Such an honor can only happen as a result of authentic integration, with enough other students knowing him, respecting him and including him -- a vote of respect for Louis, and an A+ evaluation for project-based inclusion.
Lorie Levinson is a freelance writer based in Taos, N.M.