Jewish Journal

Teachers Can’t Teach What They Don’t Know

by Michelle K. Wolf

November 3, 2013 | 10:36 pm

“Disability is now understood to be a human rights issue. People are disabled by society, not just by their bodies. These barriers can be overcome, if governments, nongovernmental organizations, professionals and people with disabilities and their families work together. “
--From the first ever WHO/World Bank World report on disability, Sept 2013

Last week I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with 12 bright and promising Masters of Education students at the American Jewish University on the topic of teaching students/campers with special needs. A majority of the dozen students either had siblings with special needs, had worked as an 1:1 aide with a youngster with special needs or had encountered campers who had special needs, yet this was their first class addressing the issue directly.

The students were very open to idea of including students/campers with special needs, but one young man pointed out that “everyone keeps talking about inclusion but no one is telling us how to do it.” In some cases, trying to include campers with more severe behavioral challenges, especially if they were prone to violent outbursts, did not end well, with some campers sent home. A big part of the problem was the lack of honesty on the part of parents on the application form, and the fear that parents had that they if they fully disclosed their child’s challenges, they would be excluded from the program.

Another key issue was a lack of in-service staff training. One of the students told me he was recruited by a religious school in Boston to be a 1:1 aide for a student with autism, and his total training consisted of being given one article to read about autism. Another student talked about being matched up a very large male camper with special needs, who required physical intervention, and that she needed to ask for help from a male counselor, who was closer in size to the camper.

We covered a lot of ground during the 2.5 hours we had together including the concept of Universal Design, how the Regional Center system works in California, the difference between learning disabilities and developmental disabilities and the tension between inclusive and separate programs for students and campers with special needs.

I came away from the experience with conflicted feelings: grateful for the opportunity to meet with these students and hopeful, that so many of them were truly committed to including students and campers with special needs in their future work environments and also frustrated that their curriculum wasn’t yet providing the nuts and bolts of working with youth and teens with special needs that they will need to succeed.

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