Students Get Real Insight Into Abilities


Growing up, I remember the children in “special ed” seemed to live in an alternate universe within our school. Regardless of the distinctions in their challenges, they all were placed together in one class, shuttled around as one throng, rarely included in the activities the rest of us took for granted.

Mercifully, we’ve come a long way (not far enough, of course, but ‘tis the season of being thankful, so I’m offering this as an example of progress.)

My sixth-grader came home recently brimming with thoughts after a lesson on empathy and disabilities at her school. October was Disabilities Awareness Month. I didn’t know anything about it so my first understanding came only through my daughter who has a reporter’s eye for detail and a willingness to tell her mom all about her day.

She said they had a lesson in what it felt like to have certain disabilities. Instead of just talking about it or showing a video, they let the students experience of each challenge.

 “For dyslexia, we got to read from a page that was impossible to understand it was so mixed up,” she said.

“What did that teach you?” I asked.

“That your brain has to work really, really hard if you have dyslexia and that it’s really cool how they can teach you to retrain your brain to make learning easier,” she explained.

She went on to describe how the lesson included demonstrations of people talking really loud and then having Post-it notes tickling the backs of their necks to help them experience the sensory overload often felt by children with autism.

Here’s how the lesson was later described on the school newsletter:

“Our special education staff and social workers set up hands-on stations in the library. At these stations, activities were set up for all staff to role-play a moment in the life of a student with a learning disability. Examples included an autistic student in the classroom, a student taking a test with ADHD, a student reading with the challenge of dyslexia, and a fine and gross motor activity demonstrated how impairment can affect the simplest tasks. Teachers and administrators were engaged in the activities and felt they really were reminded about the challenges many of our students face.”

After the experience, my daughter said all the kids were talking about how they all felt like they had “some parts of all the disabilities.” She said a lot of the kids said “hey, I feel like that a lot,” or “I get nervous when that happens all the time.” She said the chance to “live” with the disability and hear it described so vividly—even for only a few minutes –made a huge impression on her classmates, many of whom were convinced they, too, share similar challenges.

This kind of empathy can only be learned through living it. And it is a priceless life lesson.

As an educator, I see this as experiential learning and social justice teaching at its best. As a parent, I am even more grateful.  

Cytrynbaum is executive director of the Chicago Innocence Project and teaches a city-wide investigative journalism course. 


After reading the above

Submitted by Heather on 4 December 2012 - 1:32pm.

After reading the above article it strikes me that there is still quite a long way to go regarding disability rights and true social justice education about it in our schools. In short, when one understands having a disability as a "condition to be fixed" then it seems plausible to "pretend" to be that person for a day or an hour in order to "understand and develop empathy" for People with Disabilities. However, when one sheds this condescending and paternalistic (sic) view of People with Disabilities and instead views disability issues as IDENTITY issues, it becomes quite clear how offensive and problematic it is to "pretend" to have a disability and how ultimately harmful it is to call that "empathy". If this is still confusing to some, consider the socially constructed identities of race and gender; it would be unthinkable for a teacher to conduct a lesson about "empathy" regarding racism by having white students "pretend" to be a person of color for a day or an hour. And, I trust Teaching Tolerance would never even publish such an idea. Similarly, I trust that any reader would understand the problematic nature of males dressing as females for an hour or a day and then thinking they can "really feel empathy" for girls and women in this society (not to mention the complexities of trans identities in this "activity").
As such, I trust that Teaching Tolerance and its readers will refer to the multitude of information about the Disabilities Rights Movement, the decades of activism that People with Disabilities have undertaken, and the endless education PWD have had to do with non-disabled folks in addressing just this sort of offensive and ultimately harmful type of teaching. This was not an activity to engender empathy, it was an activity that under the guise of "empathy" deepened students' sense of pity and marginalization of PWD in our schools and our society, and it is one that those of us in teacher education have been trying to stop for decades.

There are a lot of

Submitted by Pauline Young on 6 December 2012 - 7:02pm.

There are a lot of assumptions and prejudices involved prior to genuine understanding occuring, and we need to be sensitized to the dangers of assumptions. The vast majority of adults choosing to work with children are well intentioned and willing to do what ever they can to help kids develop into responsible and kind adults. I applaud any person who attempts to open hearts, because that is where real change occurs. I have been working with kids and adults with disabilities for over 40 years, and there are many ways to contribute to increasing awareness and appreciation of one another in our full individual glory. I am 64 years old, and there have been many times in my younger days when I was so passionate about "helping" others, that it became about "me" trying to be heard, even though I too was unkind with those not holding the same opinions. Heathers' analysis of the article reminded me of this. Unless Heather had additional information other than the article posted through Teaching Tolerance. The assumption that the " activity was not intended to engender empathy, but was an activity under the guise of empathy". How can any one possibly know what the "intention" of the activity was? Additionally the kids did not report feelings of "pity", but of feeling some similarities, hence "connection". We need passion to help change the lives of those disenfranchised, or in need of advocacy and assistance. However, if we want others to be more open to understanding the nature of any misperception or erroneous information then it begins with us. If we throw out aggression and unkindness we are not living in line with the same principles we are requesting others to practice. My partner for 20 years had CP and was on the cutting edge of disabilities advocacy. He has passed now, but he brought many supporters into the issue. He looked to unite, and did this through kindness and always recognizing the individual beauty of those in his life. People flocked to him and so he became the best "teacher" regarding disabilities. I have to say when I read Heathers' response my immediate reaction was to see which organization she was affiliated with, and I was immediately wary of her affiliation. I do know however that Heathers' reactuons are her own. If we want to create alliances so we really can best serve the needs of others then we need to be aware our own minds and hearts interfere with helping others fully. It is difficult maintaining the commitment and energy needed to be involved in service to others for a long period of time, so let us support one another and be grateful others care enough to contribute in their own way.

I appreciate what Heather so

Submitted by D on 4 December 2012 - 8:05pm.

I appreciate what Heather so succinctly said. Until people with disability are removed from the imposed classifications of being either an object of pity, or a source of inspiration, we remain in human retrograde! Teaching Tolerance has offered me a new lens to see the world through and this article is horribly out of focus. What is most disappointing(like Heather mentioned above) is the "we are here to save you...we are here to understand you..." vibe that this gives. In many ways, this gives more power to the single story of people with disabilities that reads "Please help us" I know that the intent and energy here are well intended however, until we remove the classifications of the helpers and helpless, we are all victims of human myopicy.(sic)