Keeping educators up to date on rights of 'differently abled'

While sorting through my belongings before a recent move, I came across a box of pictures from my elementary school days. As my mother and I reminisced about my teachers, I began to think about the impact some of them had made on my life - and what impact I'll have on the education process in return.

My parents always informed my teachers about the visual and perceptual impairments with which I had come into this world. Some teachers were incredibly resourceful, anticipating problems I might have, such as making sense of pictures in books and movies. One compassionate teacher held a brief class discussion after every movie, in which the other students talked about what they had seen. Listening carefully, I learned what I needed to know without fearing the teacher might call upon me.

Sometimes, however, information about my limitations fell upon deaf ears. In those teachers' classes, I often felt ill at ease, fearful that I might be called upon to identify something I had been unable to understand or see clearly, and that the other children would laugh at me. Their snickers when I missed a step or was unable to locate an object made me wish I were as invisible to them as the object I could not find was to me. Quite often I felt all alone and very different.

By the time I entered high school, I had decided to pursue a career in which I could help people, particularly educators at all levels, to learn about the inclusion process.

An English professor of mine, for instance, initially had a difficult time accepting me as a student. She often made me feel as if my visual and perceptual limitations would keep me from ever becoming a successful writer. On a regular basis, she would announce my limitations to the class, failing to realize that she was violating federal laws.

By the end of the semester, though, this professor had developed a better appreciation for both my writing and me. Indeed, I demonstrated to her that I will not allow my impairments to get in the way of sharing my gifts and talents with others.

I have observed increasing numbers of "differently abled" students taking their places in college classrooms. Seeing their frustrations has made me even more aware of the need to educate the educators.

When I graduate from college, I plan to serve as a public-relations representative and writer for those with special needs. But I have already begun to educate others about the inclusion process. I am very active in a ministry at my church for a group of differently abled adults, and I write a biweekly column about this program for the church newsletter, so that the whole congregation will be better informed.

One useful resource is a set of guidelines, sometimes referred to as "The Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities," that circulates among disability-services workers. A few examples: Speak directly to the individual rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen or ask for instructions. Treat adults as adults. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as "See you later" or "Did you hear about this?" that seem to relate to a person's disability.

But I believe professors should also attend seminars or seek help from agencies that can keep them informed about their duties under federal law.

Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 now mandate equal educational opportunities, but passing a law does not guarantee a successful outcome. I know that it is up to people like me to encourage educators to follow both the letter and the spirit of those laws.

Maggie Delaney is a senior at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Ky.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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