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.