Welcoming and Accommodating Students with Disabilities

Every school is bearing the weight of student needs and it’s easy to lose sight of how much our most vulnerable students and families suffer. Children with disabilities and their families arguably have a difficult path and are always worthy of our support.

Whether you have a deaf and hard of hearing program, a behavior support classroom, or are hosting a seating clinic in your community school in the fall, these reminders will help you and your team consider how to create a welcoming and accommodating school community for children and youth with disabilities.

Redefine ‘A Full Life’

Often we define a full life from the lens of privilege. We were brought up with American Dream as defined by 2.2 kids in suburbs with a secure career. Of course, everything in our experience has shifted that dream. However, it’s worth considering if our definition of a ‘full life’ is inclusive of people with disabilities?

I can tell you, as a mother with an adult son with disabilities, I too often project my idea of a ‘full life’ onto my son, rather than exploring his definitions with him. Rather than accepting him, I’m still trying to fashion him into something as ‘normative’ as possible.

That’s ableism.

It works better when I see how alike we are. We’re both trying to become our best selves. We’re both struggling at times. It’s tough, but we both need to ask for help. And, we’re both deeply committed to connection, relationship, and community.

Quite easily, we can see the five Learn Forward™journeys of faith, worthiness, selfhood, belonging, and changemaking all intertwined in our need to broaden our definitions of a ‘full life.’

Focus IEPs on Strengths and Identity Formation

Additionally, what is most important for every human being is to be affirmed for their contributions, validated for how they make the world a better place, or given specifics on what they offer.

For instance, my daughter is a student with a learning disability. Attention, reading, and writing are all extremely difficult for her. So, that means school is a pretty challenging place.

However, recently, we rescued a dog. She and this dog are joined at the hip. Not surprisingly, she has taken to obedience training and agility training. She’s in love.

While this is one unique and isolated story. I think it illustrates the search to find something to dream of, drive towards, and possibly excel in that is an area of strength or aptitude. Often this will be outside of school academics.

Include Parents in the Circle of Support

Notably, throughout our Better Leaders, Better Schools mastermind discussions of supporting our students with disabilities, we locked onto our common experience of the fragility of the family.

How can we better integrate families who’ve been through trauma without re-traumatizing them? How can we acknowledge that these families are vulnerable and often crumble during these years?

How can we look at school-based team meetings, diagnosis, IEP plans, and the milieu of support needs with more compassion? Simply, what makes it easier for them?

It can be simple:

  • refreshments at the IEP table,
  • flexible scheduling,
  • more communication,
  • IEP goals that will make their life easier at home, or
  • connecting them with additional community support.

What ideas do you have that might hold the family with tenderness?

Update Everyone’s Language

I am surrounded by people with disabilities and still, I find myself reverting to bygone days of language. What’s most important today is seeing and identifying the person first. This is called people-first language.

Because these are difficult habits to break, it’s healthy to review these shifts regularly with your team, particularly related to the students you serve.

Landau, in her book Demystifying Disability makes the point that even language like ‘special needs’ or ‘special ed’ is outdated.

Here’s a helpful chart for helping us update our language. It’s important to keep trying.

Reach for Authentic Belonging

“When disabled people can fully use and experience a product or service, that’s accessiblity.”

~Emily Landau, Demystifying Disability

How accessible are your facilities, playgrounds, assemblies, or classrooms? Are there quiet spaces, choices for sensory regulation, and opportunities for socializing in a variety of modalities?

I might argue that making things accessible is the precursor to belonging.

Including children and youth with disabilities in your school doesn’t automatically make them feel like they belong. The entirety of the Civil Rights Movement illustrates this important precept. There’s a dream for true belonging.

No one ought to be an island.

If you’re working on wellness, belonging, or connection as a school, please pay special attention to how you include children and youth with disabilities.

For the sake of the children,