Monday, February 29, 2016

How Do People with Disabilities Learn?

It's the last day in February, so it's fitting that it is also time for the last of the commonly Googled questions about disability:  How do people with disabilities learn?

{Image is: Me sitting at a desk in school during kindergarten or first grade.  I'm half turned toward the camera, smiling.  Photo credit: a teacher, perhaps?  Around 1987.}


I can really only speak for myself here, but I learned the same way other children learned: I went to school.  Just like other children, there were some areas where I excelled (reading and writing) and some where I really struggled (math.)  I had accommodations made with regard to certain things: sometimes my assignments were shortened, because it took me a long time to write.  For a while, I typed my written work rather than writing it longhand - in the '80s this was pretty novel.  Sometimes I had adaptations to my desk, to make it easier for me to sit in.  I had certain grips for my pencils, and scissors that were easier for me to maneuver.  In gym class, exercises were adapted for me, so I was not expected to do jumping jacks standing up, for example

While all kids with disabilities aren't like me, kids with disabilities may require a degree of accommodation in school.  Contrary to popular belief, accommodations are not synonymous with special treatment.  These accommodations make it possible for us to learn with the same relative ease as typical students.  Typical students wouldn't be expected to learn home economics or wood shop at stations that were too high for them, would they?  Lowering the height of that station, or seating them in a place where they could reach everything would not be considered giving them special treatment, it would be about adjusting things to make it possible for that child to learn.

Not all accommodations look the same for every child, because there are different disabilities, and different presentations of each disability.  For example, someone who is autistic might require a testing space that is quiet and separate from the other students.  A student who has sustained a brain injury may have trouble filtering out excess noise in the classroom, and may miss a teacher's instructions.  A student with Attention Deficit Disorder might need accommodations that allow him to stand to do his work while the other children sit, because he is able to focus better that way.  A child with Down Syndrome may need to go through material at a more deliberate rate in order for her to have the chance to really absorb it.

Accommodations are unique to each child and their disability.  But the fact is that we all are able to take in new information to some degree.  Whether or not we are able to process it in a way that makes sense to you, is another matter.  We may completely understand a concept, but be physically unable to execute it because of our disability (an example I often cite is my inability to use a protractor in tenth grade geometry.  I totally understood the concept, but no matter how many times I tried, I was unable to execute the skill myself, so the teacher made allowances for that.)

It's important to always presume competence.  That means, don't speak to us like babies.  Don't speak to other people about us when we are present.  Speak to us the way you would speak to any other child of the same age.  We may need more time to process information, write answers, perform a skill, or it may be completely outside our ability to complete, but that does not mean we are not listening or that we are not trying.  

So, whether it's a teacher showing us how to add, a therapist working with us on shoe-tying or dressing, or a parent working on communication skills with their child at home: assume we understand you.  Assume we are trying our best, and encourage us in our attempts to master whatever it is we are trying to learn.

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