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Is it Accessible?

For as many years as my son has been in school, I’ve thought that educators at all levels should have a permanent sticky note on their computer screen that says, “What about Special Ed?” The note should serve as a reminder whenever a new curriculum is introduced, new programs and services are implemented, achievement results are evaluated, and extra-curricular activities or additional academic supports are introduced - the question should always be asked, what about special ed?

Did I, as an educator, take into account the unique needs of special education students? Is the design flexible enough to accommodate different learners? Are special education students represented in these program results? Is this new program providing appropriate support and accommodations as needed? In short, is this curriculum/program/activity accessible to all students, of all abilities?

Unfortunately, I have found that too often the question of accessibility is asked at the end of the design process, too late to actually make meaningful changes or accommodations to ensure that special education students benefit in a similar manner as their peers.

The topic of accessibility aligns closed with the Social Model of Disability, which originated in the UK in the 1970s. This model was presented as a contrast to the widely-accepted medical model of disability, which viewed people with disabilities as deficient and in need of treatment or fixing. The social model of disability conversely states that the lack of accessibility within our society is essentially what disables people and excludes them from full participation in society. The onus of inclusion is on society. We must provide access and the ability to meaningfully participate.

What does the social model of disability look like in practice within a school district? It means we should ask how the school district is making curricula, programs, and activities accessible for our kids. It is not enough to offer, for example, extra after-school support for math or English and include kids with disabilities on the list of students that are eligible. In order for special education students to meaningfully access those supports in a manner similar to their peers, the district must provide a setting in which the student will actually benefit. This could be a smaller group ratio or a support class that is taught by a trained special education teacher. If the school is putting on a play, is this activity accessible to all kids? For students with shorter attention spans, is the district providing support to help them manage through longer rehearsals? As team sports become increasingly competitive, are there opportunities within the district for special education students to be involved and play a role to experience the benefits of physical activity and team camaraderie?

Without consideration given to accessibility, a school community would have such barriers to participation, that it is not far-fetched to envision little to no inclusion of special education students in more difficult academic classes, not having been provided appropriate support early on. There would be few special education students in extracurricular activities, having found it difficult to function in unstructured environments with no support and similarly little participation of special education students in sports.

Importantly, these questions of accessibility should not be isolated to special educators. They are questions we should all be asking, every day, until accessibility is second nature and a part of our fabric, whether as a school district or as a society.

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