3 Ways Teachers Can Better Support Students With Disabilities

My disability affects my mobility or, in other words, how well I get around. Growing up, I used a posterior walker and a custom stroller, and when I turned eight, I “graduated” to using Loftstrand crutches. These help me with my balance. 

My elementary school, an inclusion school in Brooklyn, New York, prided itself on its instruction of general education students and special education students in the same classroom. And I was not the only student in class with a disability—physical or invisible. I remember my experience in elementary school as being overwhelmingly positive: My teachers were wholly supportive and encouraging and, up until I reached middle school, I had a paraprofessional, someone who I would bond with regularly. 

I didn’t really feel isolated or singled out because of my disability during those years, and, of course, I’m glad for that and appreciate my elementary school. I can only hope that today’s young students with disabilities feel the same type of support in their learning environments as I did. Based on my experience, I’ve come up with a few ways teachers and educators can be more cognizant of their students with disabilities, especially physical disabilities similar to my own. This advice is not only about the way these students learn but also considers how teachers can be more mindful of the space these students occupy and need. 

1. Give Them Space

Read aloud was my favorite activity during elementary school. I distinctly recall the non-disabled students congregating on the rug for story time, but because it was too difficult for me to get on and off the floor, I had to sit in my own chair. This allowed me to be comfortable and secure while also participating in the class activity. I encourage teachers to be aware of alternative seating arrangements and make these options available if one of their students so requires. 

2. Normalize It

Students with disabilities may need extra attention or services that may be offered at the school—like physical therapy and occupational therapy—and they may need to be pulled away from class for those services. I remember thinking it was normal to leave class for a session of physical or occupational therapy. It wasn’t until later that I realized that my other non-disabled friends didn’t have to do these types of things. I suggest that teachers normalize the experience as much as possible, beyond just ensuring the student is caught up with what is taught in class once he or she returns from a session. 

Socially, it can be tough for students with physical disabilities. If they walk a little differently than their classmates—and perhaps use crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair—how do they deal with other students who stare at them or tease them, simply for what makes them unique? Emphasize to your students that every person around them is totally and completely unique—100 percent—and no two people are the same. Students with visible and invisible disabilities contribute greatly to society, and they are true gifts. There is no reason for a student with a disability to be marginalized in the classroom—by either the teacher or other students. 

If a student does feel marginalized or excluded because the other children stare, or because of the way they ask questions, I suggest the teacher address and encourage their students’ curiosity with informed answers. They could also talk to the student with the disability about ways in which they would feel more comfortable being asked such questions (because yes, there is a right and wrong way to ask). Doing so would give the student a greater sense of control over how they manage living with their disability, while simultaneously teaching their non-disabled peers and friends the acceptable and sensitive way to approach those questions. For example, if the student with a physical disability walks differently, the “wrong” way to ask about it would look something like, “What’s wrong with your legs?” or even worse, “What’s wrong with you?” These questions may instigate deep feelings of being “flawed,” and a sense of inadequacy, and therefore should be totally unacceptable.

3. Be Their Champion

A champion is someone who defends another and who fights for a cause on his or her behalf. Teachers should always be champions for their students, including those with disabilities. Students with disabilities may face challenges that non-disabled students do not, and teachers must not only be cognizant of that but also be the pillar of support that the student with a disability may not have at home. However, if the student does have support in his or her home, the teacher could always be a valuable additional support system because teachers are so familiar with the student’s learning style and are committed to the student’s growth and success. 

In my case, both my mother and my teachers taught me the importance of self-advocacy: how crucial it is to represent yourself and your interests. I learned to be very vocal about what it meant to live while disabled. Being vocal was about identifying what I needed, not only to survive, but also to succeed and thrive. This became extremely useful since I knew I wasn’t going to be accompanied by a paraprofessional once I graduated elementary school. I suppose in all likelihood I could have continued with one, but if I had, I wouldn’t have become as independent as I am now. 

I can say with certainty that my independence is invaluable and indispensable. Realistically, being disabled meant I had to ask for help from time to time, and for the most part, I didn’t like doing so before I realized that it was occasionally necessary. Needless to say, I never want my disability to hinder my independence in any way.

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Marcela Grillo contributed to our Shaped blog as an HMH intern through a collaborative program with Girls Write Now, a nonprofit organization based in New York City.