The Special Needs Issue – Tamas Lorincz

A First (?) Day — Tamas Lorincztamas

I have thought about this day for a long time.  I feel my heart beating in my throat; I’m not able to breathe deeply enough.  The closed door lies just ahead, and behind it my future.  I hear the bell, again and again.  I can’t put this off any longer. I have to go through it.

It was a journey for me to get to this stage.  My parents insisted I remain with people like me, to make it easier.  But I had greater ambitions.  My hopes were high with what I wanted to achieve and the people I wanted to inspire. All this to be abruptly halted, one minute after the bell, by two pathetic inches.

People turn to look at me and the first impression I have made is the last I had wanted to.

“Open the other door so he can get through,” they all say to each other, to no one in particular.  I wheel myself back a little to give the gathering crowd space.

“I can’t, the latch is stuck,” says another, as I feel myself disappear into the blackness I have occupied so often throughout my life.

Another person tries the latch, then a third, before it finally gives and they are able to open both doors so that my wheelchair can pass.

I haven’t inspired awe, I have attracted pity.  The students look at me with a mixture of curiosity, doubt and a bit of fear. They have no idea what to do with me.

When did the word ‘special’ become fraught with so much derision?  I am not ‘special.’ I am not ‘unique.’ I do not have special needs and I am not ‘differently abled’. I’m just not able to move my legs.

This…..inconvenience, hindrance, even idiosyncrasy, will mean, inevitably, that I will have to deal with the humiliation of the door, and others like it, everyday.

I remember all too clearly the trauma of my last school, where I had to fake sickness before class performances to avoid being carried down the stairs to the auditorium.  Where I had to wait until lunchtime to go to the toilet because the only one fitting a wheelchair was near the basketball courts outside.  I could go on, and on and on and on, but it gets boring, as you can imagine.

I wheel myself into the middle of the room.  The students clearly have seen nothing like it before. Surely, a teacher isn’t supposed to be in a wheelchair.  There’s going to be a lot to get used to.

“I bet you’re wondering how you’re going to get me to sit on a whoopee cushion,” I say to the faces staring at me.  I wait for laughter.  Slowly, it comes.  The students lift their eyes from the ground to look at me, seeking my permission to laugh properly.

“A funny teacher!” says a boy in the back of the class, as if he’s just discovered oil. The rest of the class, fortunately for me, agrees. I have plenty more of these at hand, enough to last a year probably.

So I settle in.  I don’t know what the rest of the year holds in store. More laughs, I hope. And maybe some of the students may grow to dislike me, to complain about homework and grades, and realise that I am not so special.  Quite normal, actually.

I dedicate this post to every teacher who overcomes their own personal obstacles to bring the joy of learning to classrooms around the world. I wish there were more of you to teach us all. For further insight you might wish to read Dorothy Lepkowska’s November 12th, 2012 article from the Guardian, Where Are The Disabled Teachers?

Connect with  Tamas, Chuck, Scott,  Vladimira, Nour,  Ann and other iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development courses.

Like what we do? Become an iTDi Patron.
Your support makes a difference.

The Special Needs Issue – Naomi

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open  – ELT and the Special Needs LearnerNaomi Epstein

Looking at the title of this post, a reader may be tempted to wonder who is presumptuous enough to lump all the widely different kinds of “special needs learners” into one post. Surely there is a world of difference between the one learner in your class who can’t hear well, the one who can’t see well, the one who is dyslectic and the learner who can’t sit still for more than a few minutes.

Well, I am.

Because there is one thing that all these learners have in common. They need to have an open line of communication to you, the teacher, outside of the lesson. While adult learners may be able to tell the teacher, in front of the whole class, something like: “You spoke with your back to the class and I couldn’t hear you, please repeat that”, most children avoid drawing attention to themselves like they avoid the plague. Children, particularly those between the ages of 9-15 are much more concerned with what they believe their peers think of them than with ensuring they are getting the accommodations the need. They will nod emphatically to indicate that they have understood even when they haven’t, just to avoid any special attention from the teacher.

NAOMI image1

Therefore, the teacher and the learner need to find a way to communicate regularly in a manner which will not embarrass the child. The options are many, ranging from face-to-face (the student stops by during the teacher’s weekly yard duty) to weekly phone calls, emails or video chats. Not only will these short exchanges allow the teacher to ensure that the child understood technical information (such as which material must be reviewed for the exam) but will give the child and the teacher an opportunity to work out “secret signals”.

Consider these two examples:

When a teacher switches back and forth frequently between English and the mother tongue, a child with a hearing loss may have a difficult time following. It takes such a learner more time to register that there has been a switch and then an adjustment of lip-reading skills focused on needs to be made. Some teachers and learners agree on a tiny hand signal the teacher makes when switching languages.  No one but the student notices it.

Sometimes a teacher may not notice that her black marker (for the whiteboard) is beginning to fade away. Or perhaps the teacher may not pay attention that she/he has written on the board with letters that are smaller than the size needed.  The student with a visual impairment may pretend to suddenly have a cough, which alerts the teacher to the fact that the board must be examined.

In many cases, the children themselves are the best source of knowledge as to how to help them function in class. But they won’t say a word in class. The teacher needs the opportunity to listen to the student, outside of the classroom.

The Special Needs Issue – Vladka

Be A Guide: Find The Wayvladka-cokoladka

There is no such thing as students with special needs or learning disorders. It is the society we live in that has created a special place for those who haven’t learned how to conform their uniqueness. We all were once special needs learners!

Before I share my story with you, let me share one really thoughtful and bold statement I heard recently from one psychologist. She said that it is the conformity, sterility and rigidity of society that doesn’t allow us to have time and patience to deal with special talents and the courage to see that this just reflects who we are as adults.

Teachers or parents, you can either address a special need as a disorder and use it as an excuse for your decisions or actions, or you can embrace it as an opportunity to look inside the pure nature of unspoiled learning that does not follow the norms yet!

As a teacher, a good one, you choose responsibility and the place where the sun shines on others. It is not about rewards, comfort or recognition. It is about being a guide — and the guide is never the main hero in a story.

Please never, never ever blame children for not making your life easier.

My story is about a little Italian boy I met during a summer school who stole my heart in the most sincere way possible. He came into my elementary class and all we shared at the very beginning were a very few, basic phrases in English. Very soon I found out about his dyslexia. I knew I wouldn’t be spending more than a couple of weeks with him, but I couldn’t give up on him.

The natural instinct to learn is very alive in kids and if they are not made to feel they are part of the class, they can act in ways we perceive as disruptive.

I am not trained to teach such kids so I had to rely on some basic elements of intuitive learning:

Be attentive

Be flexible

Be mindful (here and now)

I had to observe him, the things he did, the way he did them, and what he didn’t do, while paying attention to his smiles and the look in his eyes. I could go on with all the details but the thing is we eventually found out the way to teach each other, connect the whole class and break any form, order or disorder.

I noticed he was really talkative and for that reason he naturally used his mother tongue. He paid attention when I used pictures and when I was talking in small chunks of the target language. His eyes got that famous spark when I showed interest in his language.

Don’t put your comfort above the desire to learn!

As a result, we created our own little game. My homework was to remember the words in Italian he taught me and his work was to remember the same words in English. Every time we met we tested each other. I said an Italian word and he responded with the English translation. He said an English word and I had to remember the Italian equivalent. The whole class worked that way and we could build on that.

It may not be a very sophisticated technique or effective for everyone, but the point is that as a teacher you need to step back and bring out the best in your students by letting them work the way they prefer to work. I just spent some time to learn who he really is, not only who he appeared to be, and none of us gave up on each other.

The Special Needs Issue – Kevin

Road Posts Along The WayKevinStein3 

Before I started working at my current high school, the man who interviewed me tried to impress upon me that the students were, “a bit of a challenge.”  They were futoko, which, he explained meant that they had missed over 30 days of a school year, not because they were truant, but because… and then he ticked off a laundry list of reasons. They had been bullied. They had anxiety disorders. They were diagnosed with light cases of Aspergers. They exhibited behaviors like mild self-mutilation. They had been victims of domestic violence. He looked at my resume, mentioned that he was happy I had social work experience in Chicago, shook my hand and offered me the job.  Funny thing, my social work experience hasn’t actually been all that helpful.  Not when I started and not now, five years into the job.

Now I know that futoko can be translated as school refusal syndrome. I’ve also taken in-services and learned that many futoko are labled in some way or another (ADHD, DD, LD), a garden of capital letters blooming throughout their school records. But being able to decipher a school record hasn’t taught me much about how to meet the needs of my students. Fortunately, my students are willing to tell me what they need themselves. All I have to do is pay attention to how they stand up for each other, and how they care for each other.

Here are six things that my students have taught me about how to create the kind of safe space that can foster learning in a classroom.  There is no particular order to this list.  On some days some things are more important than others.  Some of the ideas on the list might even seem contradictory.  That is because they are. Learners are people. There’s no manual for how to connect with people and there’s no map for how to go about learning. Still, a few road posts are better than wandering around lost.

1. Make every success a group success. My students all progress at different rates.  Some get stuck for weeks without any sign of improvement.  Some suddenly switch on and take in months’ worth of language in a few days. But when one of them passes a standardized test, wins a speech contest, or gets into university, they all celebrate. Because they are a language community, I do everything I can to foster this feeling. Learning to celebrate these successes—big and small—helps all the students feel as if they are moving forward. It is the tailwind that keeps them learning.

KEVIN image1

2. Honor and welcome who my student is today. Yesterday and maybe for the whole month before that, one of my students might have taken notes, been active in class, and flashed smiles here and there. But today a cloud hangs over his head. He can’t put together a full sentence. Maybe he doesn’t answer back when I say hello. Still, he is in school. He managed to pull himself through whatever darkness greeted him when he woke up in the morning and got himself to class. Thinking about what he could do yesterday is not going to help him do any better today. One of my students’ most common greeting to a friend in a funk is a simple, “I’m glad you’re here today.” It is a great greeting. I would even put it slightly ahead of “nice to see you,” on my list of useful phrases.

3. Focus on the language, not the person. My students have been bullied, pushed out and ignored. When they share something about themselves, it is a gift. When they correct each other in class (and they sometimes do), they have a way of saying a word and waiting for a few heartbeats for their classmate to respond. That one word and pause seems to change the gears of the conversation. It shifts it out of the personal. Now I try and do something similar to separate the content from the language and make the class feel safer. Jotting down student language on Post It Notes, correcting it, and laying it down on their desk is one way I’ve found to help depersonalize the language of a communicative act.

KEVIN image2

4. Focus on the person, not the language Often as I watch students have a conversation in my class, one of them makes a shocking grammatical error, and the other student does not comment on it at all. I think this probably has something to do with students’ ability to differentiate between an error, a mistake, and a slip. If you put the jargon aside, it is really about how sometimes people just can’t put together a decent sentence—in a second language, or even in a first. Depending on what else is going on with the person, sometimes those errors/mistakes/slips do not really matter very much. So on those kinds of days, let a student talk, and instead of checking for cracks in the surface of their words, dive a bit deeper down towards their intentions.

5. Have more patience for students than they have for themselves:  Missing 30 days, 100 days, 1 year, or 3 years of school can make anyone feel a little stressed about lost time. Compound that with a diagnosis that implies the future is less than well paved and it is no wonder my students get a little impatient with themselves. Fortunately, most of the students in class are in or have been through a similar situation. Perhaps that is why they never, ever, get impatient with each other. As the teacher, I’ve learned to take it a bit more slowly, extend my class wait time, and give hints as necessary until a student can answer any question I ask. Someday I hope to be as patient with students as they are with each other.

KEVIN Image3 6. Ignore general lists of things that should or shouldn’t be done for students. When talking with one another, my students have no such lists in mind. As far as I can tell, they also have no intention of making one, which seems to me to be a very good thing indeed. Watching them support, share, and relate with each other from moment to moment is the best way I’ve found to keep learning what it means to be the kind of teacher I need to be—for them and for myself.

The Special Needs Issue – Miguel

Different Abilities: Embracing and Supporting Diversity at the UniversityMiguel Profile

As member of a committee, I have been providing support to students with disabilities or functional diversity for some good 10 years at a public university in Venezuela. The term “special needs” is generally used for students in primary or high school. Even the term “functional diversity”, as appealing and inclusive as it is, has raised some controversies in our country since it would mean changing labels, laws and attitudes and it may also endanger the visibility disabled people have gained over the past years. For some people, they would become diluted within a diverse society that has traditionally valued able-bodiedness risking the attention disabled people have received so far. Ironically, this term was coined by a Spanish tetraplegic Javier Romanach, one of the founders of the Diversity and Independent Living Forum from Spain.

Some CAEDEBA and Students Union members. Librarianship School. Universidad Central de Venezuela
Some CAEDEBA and Students Union members. Librarianship School. Universidad Central de Venezuela

As a teacher more than how our disabled students should be called, labeled, or fit into a medical or social approach, I do care more for the support they need to study in the School of Librarianship in the Faculty of Humanities and Education at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). That’s what I try to do as a member of a Committee for the Integration of Disabled Students from the School of Librarianship (CAEDEBA). We offer academic help and guidance to these students. Also this committee – made up of 12 disabled students, 10 volunteers and 2 teachers – organizes workshops and events to sensitize our community about disability. This semester 2 deaf students will start studying this career and we are figuring out how to get Venezuelan sign language interpreting services in the classroom. Here are some tips I’d like to share with you when teaching students with different disabilities:

Asperger’s syndrome (autism spectrum disorder):

One Asperger can be totally different from another one. They may sound even different as if they had picked up a foreign accent. Some of them sound words and phrases carefully and may repeat what they say several times. It is true they function pretty well under a well structured environment. Also it is difficult for them to understand metaphors or jokes. They can be socialized though. Have you ever heard about Sheldon from the Big Bang theory? In our school, one of our Asperger students is about to graduate. Two more are just starting this career. Based on my experience, what would be my advice?

  1.  If you use metaphors or tell jokes in the classroom, explain what you tried to say. You can paraphrase, illustrate or give their literal meaning.
  2. Always let Aspergers know you are going to change lesson plans, class schedule or even seating arrangement. Some of them may feel threatened when things are suddenly changed. They may relentlessly hurt themselves under stress.
  3. Let them know there is a safe place at the university they may go to when they feel under stress: teachers’ office, university counselor, support group.
  4. Some Asperses may try to find their way around to justify not having studied or having finished a task. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to do the task or study. This is a hidden message telling you they might feel under pressure or it is not clear to them what they are required to do. Check what the cause of the anxiety is- if it is not classroom-related and you don’t know what to do get some advice from the university counselor or support group.

Blind students

An undergraduate blind student speaking at a university event (CAEDEBA member)
An undergraduate blind student speaking at a university event (CAEDEBA member)

We should always know if the student has total blindness or low vision. This will determine the type of help students may need. If it is total blindness they need to know how to use Braille or a screen reading software (eg. Jaws). They may also need some assistance to get around. Now be careful they would prefer to do this on his/her own. Partially sighted students may need magnifying glasses or having the font size of tests and materials changed. My advice:

  1. Check out what type of assistive technology students may need to read, take notes or tests (e.g. Braille, Jaws, laptop).
  2. For students with complete blindness, in a test situation it is always fair to give them a head start (about 15 minutes) before their classmates.
  3. For students with low vision, print out materials / tests with the most suitable font size (generally 21 to 25).
  4. It is a good idea to send materials, tasks, readings to these students’ emails in advance.
  5. Blind students may need to record the class lecture or discussions.

We have two low vision students and one complete blind student. They have never used Braille but it is always good for them to know if there is a place in the university where they can get assistive or adaptive technology to help them study, print material or even get equipment loans.

Deaf students using hearing device (Hypoacusia)

In our school, there is a partially deaf student currently working on her thesis. She uses a hearing device. What’s my advice this time?

  1. Make sure you talk to the student face to face and depending on the level of hearing loss speak slightly slower. Don’t talk to him/her as if they were dumb , though.
  2. Make sure he/she seats in the front row.
  3. They will generally have writing or reading problems. So they may need guidance on how to improve these skills at the university. You can also refer them to student unit services where they will learn about reading or writing courses they may enrol in.
  4. Deaf students may need to record the class lecture and discussions.

Students with reduced mobility

An undergraduate student with reduced mobility speaking at a university event (CAEDEBA member)
An undergraduate student with reduced mobility speaking at a university event (CAEDEBA member)

In our school, there’s a group of students with reduced mobility in their hands and legs, but they do not use wheelchairs. One of them uses a walking frame. One of the main things we have to consider is facilitating accessibility. Most students with reduced mobility in their hands may need:

  1. Extended time to start a test since it may take some time for them to answer questions or write essays, for example. Another option is for them to take oral tests instead of written ones.
  2. This may vary from one culture to culture, but it is always a good idea to make sure these students have a classmate who may take notes for him/her or share his/her notes with these students.
  3. These students may need to record the class lecture and discussions.
  4. Make sure there’s a fixed seat for these students in the front row and space is clear from obstacles or clutter.

Students with reduced mobility are benefitted by adaptive technology used by blind people.

Learning and psychiatric disabilities

In our school, we have also dealt with students with learning and psychiatric disabilities. In the case of learning disabilities students may need extended time when taking tests or substituting written tests for oral ones.  They may benefit from repetition and reviewing content in each class (able-bodied students will benefit from this as well). Instructions should be clear and teachers should make sure this is so (follow-up). They forget or misunderstand instructions easily. This may happen to able-bodied students too, but in the case of students with learning disabilities this might be amplified. Psychiatric cases should be dealt carefully- teachers had better get support from university counselors or psychologists.

In our country, disable students can have a place at the university from different modality entrances just like any able-bodied student, except for the so called OPSU-disability university entrance. Once they are part of our community they should receive support. This doesn’t mean special treatment, but promoting inclusive and equitable opportunities for them to thrive during their undergraduate studies. In this journey of disabled students becoming part of the university community, they have an important role to make themselves visible and proud of who they are. Otherwise, efforts from members of this community will not resonate as much as it is needed to embrace and support them in an environment that sometimes can be hostile and framed within old scholar values of what a “normal, smart” student should be.

Some CAEDEBA members, teachers and friends. Christmas 2011