Recognizing uniqueness is not a substitute for thinking about disability

Teachers who are really good at teaching typically developing kids sometimes have trouble understanding the significance of disability. I’ve heard a lot of things like “all kids are unique” and “I always individualize my approach for every kid” and “I don’t see the need to label any kids as disabled, it’s just a matter of finding what works for them”.

This sounds positive, but it can be a disaster for kids with disabilities.

We talk a lot about uniqueness, but a lot of effective teaching depends on understanding ways in which kids are similar to each other. Developmentally appropriate practice means understanding how kids the same age are similar to each other — then being flexible in ways that recognize kids’ unique humanity. We develop a sense of what the range of difference is for kids of a particular age.

Kids with disabilities are more different than that, and we need to take those differences seriously. Disability matters, and practices based on typical developmental milestones don’t account for it.

For instance:

Developmental milestones tell us:

  • Two year olds don’t have the motor skills to support handwriting.
  • Early education helps two year olds develop the motor skills that will eventually support handwriting.
  • Ten year olds do have the motor skills to support handwriting.
  • If they’ve had appropriate education, ten year olds should be able to write.

Developmental milestones don’t tell us:

  • How to teach ten year olds who don’t have the fine motor skills to support handwriting.
  • What early literacy and pre-writing instruction looks like for young children who are unlikely to develop the motor skills needed to support handwriting

It’s also important to understand the difference between unusual and unique. Disability means having unusual differences. But not every difference is unique. Some differences are shared by other people with disabilities. Those shared differences are important.

We need to understand the disability-related similarities. Part of that is having the right words to describe them. Calling disabilities by their right names isn’t about labeling, it’s about breaking isolation and making important things speakable.

For instance:


  • Braille exists because blind people need it to exist
  • The differences between sighted people and blind people are a reason that braille needs to exist.
  • (And a reason that Braille is better than raised print).
  • The similarities between many blind people are a reason that braille *can* exist as a standard way of accessing literacy. 
  • If each blind person was completely unique, there would be no way to create a reading and writing system that would work for large numbers of blind people.

Some other examples:

  • Wheelchairs.
  • Ramps.
  • Large print.
  • Cars with hand controls and/or wheelchair lifts.
  • Text-to-speech communication devices.
  • VoiceOver and other screen reading software.
  • Signed languages.
  • Medications that manage symptoms.
  • Supportive seating.
  • The ADA, Section 504, IDEA and other disability rights laws.

People with disabilities are unique, and not interchangeable with each other. Similarly, kids the same age are unique, and not interchangeable with each other. Both the similarities and differences are important.

Tl;dr Sometimes progressive educators are uncomfortable with the concept of disability, and want to instead just see every kid’s uniqueness. That doesn’t work, because disability means having unusual differences — and because the differences aren’t unique; they’re shared with many other disabled people. Recognizing uniqueness isn’t enough — we also need to understand and accommodate disability.

Inclusive education: presence, participation, and learning

There are three components of inclusive education that matter a lot, which tend to get conflated:

  • Being present and welcome
  • Access to participation
  • Access to content

Being present and welcome means:

  • A person with a disability is in the room
  • Their right to be there is not questioned
  • People want them to be there
  • They’re seen as a student and treated as a peer by other students
  • They’re treated more or less respectfully
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being taught the material, or that they’re meaningfully participating in educational activities

For instance:

  • A child with a disability may go to kindergarten, and spend a lot of time watching other children do educational activities.
  • Everyone might be very happy that they’re there.
  • Other children might like them, and play with them during recess or free play time.
  • They’re still left out of most activities
  • They’re still not being taught the same material as everyone else

Access to participation means:

  • When students are doing an activity, the disabled student isn’t left on the sidelines
  • They’re given something to do that makes them part of what’s happening
  • This doesn’t always give them access to the content, in and of itself.
  • They may or may not actually be learning the material the activity is supposed to teach.
  • They may or may not really be welcome in the classroom with their peers

For instance:

  • A group of third graders are being taught a lesson about sorting things into categories
  • The teacher draws a few giant Venn diagrams on big paper, with topic headings
  • The teacher writes a list of words on the board.
  • Students are told to draw those words, then tape them to the place in a Venn diagram category that they think it should go in
  • Then they’re given a list of words, and told to draw pictures of the words in the place in on the diagram that they think those things go
  • A disabled student’s aide gives them crayons and tells them to draw a couple of the pictures, then give them to the other kids to categorize
  • The typically-developing kids take the pictures and decide where to put them
  • Everyone is more or less happy with this. The student is participating and they are socially included.
  • But they’re not being taught the material about categorizing things. They’re just drawing pictures.

Access to content means:

  • The disabled student is taught the same material as other students
  • They’re given a way to engage with the material that they can understand
  • They learn the material, and develop their own thoughts on it
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re given a way to participate meaningfully in educational activities with peers
  • It also doesn’t necessarily mean that they are present or welcome

For instance:

  • A disabled student may attend a mainstream class, but be pulled out for one-to-one tutoring for most of their actual academic instruction.
  • If it’s good instruction, they’re getting access to the content.
  • But they’re not participating in educational activities with their peers.
  • They also may not really be welcomed in their mainstream class; people including the teacher may believe that they don’t have the right to be there (which is a factor that can lead to a lot of pull out instruction in and of itself).

This isn’t just about children, it’s true in every educational setting, including universities, grad school, and continuing education for adults.

Tl;dr Inclusion in school has many components. Three of them are being present and welcome, having a way to participate in educational activities with peers, and having access to the content being taught. All three of these things are important. Solving one problem doesn’t always solve the other two. It’s important to keep paying attention, and to work towards making sure students are welcome, that they are able to participate, and that they are learning the content being taught.

How disabled kids learn to be suspicious of optimistic teachers

This happens a lot in school:

  • A disabled kid goes to school.
  • A teacher is initially friendly and optimistic.
  • The teacher expects that their teaching will make the kid’s disability irrelevant.
  • Eventually it becomes clear that the kid’s disability is going to stay important.
  • Then the teacher gets frustrated, gives up, or stops being nice.
  • Sometimes this is overt and sometimes it’s subtle; it’s always hurtful.

A lot of kids go through this over and over during childhood. And, it often persists into adulthood and becomes a lifelong thing. It hurts. It does damage. And it means that people with disabilities are often suspicious of immediate kindly optimistic affect, and may take a long time to trust that you won’t reject them for being disabled.

If you’re teaching, be careful not to come in with the expectation that your teaching will erase disability or render it irrelevant. It won’t. Instead, start with the expectation that disability will matter and that you will be teaching students with disabilities. Disability acceptance is a key emotional skill for effective teaching. If you think around disability, it’s nearly impossible to apply any creativity to accommodating it. If you’re willing to face disability head on, it’s often possible to find good ways to adapt teaching so that a student can learn.



How do you ask for accomendations when you don’t have a go-to reason to explain why you need it? I don’t know if I’m disabled (I find info about disablities completely inaccessible to me, though i’ve wondered from seeing people talk about things i’ve also experienced) but I do know I can’t learn in certain ways, or process information that’s presented in certain ways, and that I’m prone to sensory overload. people act like i’m being overdemanding when I bring it up. am i? if not, what do I do?
realsocialskills said:
I’ve been there, a lot. I was only diagnosed after college, even though I’ve always been disabled. I was just as impaired before diagnosis; being without a label didn’t magically create abilities. So I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating accommodations informally. 
I’ve found that what works best is to give a very simple version of the problem, and to ask for something specific. This can make accommodating you seem like a straightforward thing to do.
For instance: “This is hard for me to read. Is there an electronic copy?” works much better than ”I’m autistic and I have visual tracking issues and executive dysfunction and I need a different format.”
Or: “Noisy College Hall is big and crowded. I never understand anything there. Can we have class in the usual room instead of moving?”
Or: “I don’t understand the assignment when it’s said verbally. Can you email me the details?”
tl;dr You don’t have to go into great diagnostic detail when you’re negotiating with a teacher directly. You can start by describing the problem and a solution you think would work. This doesn’t always work, but it’s the most effective approach I know of for this situation.
Does anyone else want to weigh in? What’s worked for you when you’ve needed to ask a teacher for accommodations?

lanthir said:

It can vary a lot from one teacher to another.  I’ve had some professors be totally willing to accommodate me, provided with only the slightest information.  Ex: I told a professor that I find clamor overwhelming and upsetting, and I was given permission for my group to work in the hallway whenever we did small group work, to minimize noise.  This permission extended for two years, without me having to bring it up more than once.  

Or, I mentioned once to my adviser (with whom I had multiple classes most semesters for five years) that I have anxiety problems, and that some subject matter is triggering for me (I did not mention what, or why).  Hence forth, he was completely okay with me discretely stepping out into the hall to calm down whenever I needed to.

Then again, I had a professor adamantly refuse to give me any accommodation or assistance when I explained to her that being verbally told complex assignments in a loud and chaotic environment didn’t work for me at all.  She insisted that there was no possible way that could ever be difficult for anyone, and that there was no way she could write down, type up, or even slowly repeat the assignments.  She refused to answer my questions, and refused to allow me to wear headphones while working.  (It was a studio art class, at a school where having headphones on to work in the studio is common.)  I was penalized for having multiple panic attacks every single class.  

I think, if a professor is going to be helpful at all, the best way to go about asking is to stay after class or visit their office during their office hours, and explain as briefly but specifically as possible what accommodations you are requesting.  Professors who are kind and decent people will probably be willing to help.  But not everyone can be convinced, no matter what you tell them, or how you frame the request.

When teachers use ableist slurs

Anonymous asked:

Today we did a spelling test in English,and when someone asked what question two was when we were on question four, the teacher shouted. “Special NEEDS!!”. Is this acceptable??!

I don’t mind teachers swearing at us,but this seems even more inappropriate.

Should I complain?

realsocialskills said:

I think there are two questions here which may have different answers:

  • Did the teacher do something significantly wrong? and
  • Should you complain?

So I’ll consider them separately. The first question is easy. The teacher definitely did something wrong. Several things, actually.

The first thing they did wrong was insult a student who was asking a question. Teachers should encourage questions. It was entirely reasonable for the student to want to have questions they’d missed repeated. Spelling, writing, and paying attention are hard for some people, and a moment of difficulty or inattention shouldn’t mean that you’re not allowed to ask what the question was. It’s really unfair to mark students as not knowing the material when the problem was actually that you refused to make the test accessible to them. That would have been wrong no matter how the teacher chose to insult the student.

It’s especially wrong that the teacher chose to use the insult they used. When they said “special NEEDS!”, they were expressing contempt for students with learning disabilities and learning difficulties. They were also threatening students by implying that if they show disability related struggles, they won’t be seen as having a legitimate place in the class. That’s a horrible kind of sentiment.

They were also showing any students with disabilities who may have been in the room that this teacher is not a safe person to discuss disability-related struggles with. That’s awful, too.

What the teacher said was mean and hateful. Teachers ought to be building their students up, not tearing them down. Teachers ought to be teaching their students to be respectful of everyone, not participating in a culture of ableist hate. Teachers ought to be actively showing their students that they will find solutions that make it possible for them to learn; not insulting them for asking for help. They ought to be actively seeking out effective accessibility and accommodations; not mocking special needs.

The second question is more complicated, and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. It depends on a lot of different things, and I think it is on some level a personal choice.

Some options:

Complaining to the teacher directly:

  • I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this in your situation, but:
  • Some teachers who say this kind of hurtful thing don’t understand the implications of what they’re saying
  • Sometimes when someone points it out to them, they listen and stop doing it
  • This is risky, especially if you are in grade school rather than university.
  • I wouldn’t recommend talking to this teacher about the problem directly unless you have a generally good relationship to them and have reason to believe that they’d care what you think and listen seriously

Talking to another teacher:

  • Is there another teacher you trust to understand why this was an awful thing to say?
  • If so, it might be worth talking to them and seeing what they think is the best way to proceed
  • (But be careful about this too - some teachers in this situation might not understand that you’re vulnerable and might repeat things or  pressure you to confront the mean teacher in ways that are not in your interests)

Talking to an authority figure:

  • I know that it can sometimes be done effectively, but I don’t know how to describe how to do it
  • One thing is that you can’t assume that they will understand why this is a big deal
  • But you can sometimes insist that it is a big deal
  • It helps to be as polite as possible in every way aside from the fact that you’re pushing the issue
  • (Eg: It is helpful to refrain from shouting or swearing, dressing in a way that’s against the rules, or doing anything else they can claim is a discipline problem)
  • It also helps to be pushing for a specific solution. If there’s a built in thing they can do that would get you to stop bothering them, they’re much more likely to do something
  • (Figuring out what to ask for can be complicated. What do you want? Do you want the head teacher to tell your teacher that they can’t say things like that? Do you want a general memo going out about why you can’t say things like that? Do you want to put a letter of complaint in their file? Do you want to to be transferred into a different English class? You might be able to get one of those things to happen if you push in the right ways.)

Involving your parents:

  • If your parents are supportive and understand why this is a big deal, it might be worth talking to them about ways they might help you with this
  • Sometimes teachers and administrators who don’t listen to teenagers do listen to their parents
  • Parents can also sometimes be anti-helpful, so I don’t know whether this is a good idea or a bad idea for you. You’re the best judge of that.

Talking to other students:

  • You might be in a position to influence and/or support other students here.
  • Do you think other students think this was wrong? 
  • Do you think they know that you think it was wrong?
  • Knowing that someone else thinks it was wrong can make a huge difference to people who are vulnerable
  • There’s probably at least one other student who you could support in this way
  • (Possibly discreetly, like talk to a particular person alone at lunch and say something like: Hey, did you hear what Ms. Meanteacher said to Rina the other day during the spelling test? That was so mean/ableist! Why do teachers think that’s ok?“ Or "Why is Mr. Meanteacher always insulting us?”)

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to suggest. Do any of y'all have ideas about what might be effective in this situation? (Answers from people who are familiar with the education system in the UK would be particularly helpful.)

Finding out about nicknames respectfully

I recently started substitute teaching, and I’m wondering about calling students by nicknames. Specifically, I’m wondering when to ask if a student has a nickname. So far, I usually just ask “do you go by (name on the roll)?” when a kid’s name seems long or unusual, but I’m worried that might be rude to assume they’d go by something else. Any suggestions?
realsocialskills said:
It’s not a good idea to single particular kids out to ask them about nicknames. 
Particularly since doing so is likely to be racist (whether or not you mean it that way). Kids with WASPy names are allowed to use their names, and are able to expect that teachers will pronounce them correctly. Kids whose names aren’t WASPy are often pressured to either go by nicknames or allow teachers to mispronounce their names. It’s easy to end up putting pressure on those kids if you single them out, even if all you 
There are a couple of better options for finding out if there are kids who go by nicknames:
Option #1: Announce at the beginning of roll call that kids should let you know if they go by a nickname, then assume they will tell you. 
Option #2: Ask *every* kid what they go by. Eg:
  • “Alexander Smith?”
  • “Here”
  • “What should I call you?" 
If you do either of these things, sometimes kids who like to mess with substitute teachers might tell you that they go by something ridiculous as a prank. I’m not sure what the best way to handle this is. My guess is that so long as they’re not asking you to call them something insulting, it’s better to just go with it. I don’t think it would do any real harm to spend a day calling a kid Batman; it would do harm to argue with a kid about their actual name. But that’s a guess, and I’d welcome input from folks who actually have dealt with this situation.
Option #3: Look for clues in the environment. If you are in an elementary school classroom, a lot of things will have students’ names on them, and they will probably be the names students actually go by. If there is a behavior chart/wheel (not a good thing, but they’re common), it will have students names on it. Student cubbies (and possibly coat hooks) will be labelled with their names. There might be a shelf of folders with their names. If you can find something like that, it might work to take roll with that in addition to or instead of the official list.
Teachers and especially substitute teachers, what do y'all think? How do you find out about nicknames without singling any kids out?



this ask is about bullying and being an adult who kids ask for help:
i know from experience that it’s important not to teach bullied kids that the way to defend themselves is to mentally place themselves as superior to the bullies,…

ischemgeek said:

I’ve had success with expressing casual disapproval of kids engaging in bullying-prelude behavior (like if they’re gossiping about another behind their back, that sort of thing) and with swiftly and strictly scolding/otherwise punishing for bullying behavior (like laughing at/making fun of another kid, stealing another kid’s stuff, etc), and praising for respecting others’ boundaries (if the kid is new and has issues with recognizing boundaries - after a while it just becomes an expected-standard-of-behavior thing) and/or putting a stop to bullying behaviors (“Hey, I saw you stop [kid] from bugging [other kid]. That was nice of you. Good job.”)

The most important thing is to be consistent with it. Kids I volunteer with know they can joke with each other about stuff, but the moment it crosses into actually insulting each other or the moment a kid’s establishment of a boundary is not respected, I will scold or make them sit out until they’re willing to be respectful of others, depending on how much they’ve pushed it. Full stop. No exceptions. It’s to the point that the kids who’ve been there longer will now put a stop to bullying situations before I even have to step in (“No, leave [kid] alone, they said they don’t like that. Let’s do [other thing] instead!”). I tell kids that I don’t ask them to like or be friends with everyone, but I do demand that they treat each other with respect and consideration.

And especially, especially lead by example. If you don’t want kids you watch over/teach to bully, don’t be a bully. If you want kids to view you as a safe grownup to come to about these things, don’t be a bully. Don’t make fun of the kids you’re working with. Don’t ignore their boundaries. Ask if you can borrow stuff. Don’t embarrass them on purpose in public. Don’t use humiliation or public embarrassment as a punishment (there’s a big difference between “Stop that or you’ll have to sit out until you can be safe.” and “Hey, everyone, [kid] thinks it’s a good idea to do [bad thing]! [Kid] can do [punishment] now while we all watch and thank them for the delay they’ve caused us. Good job, [kid].” The first is discipline, the second is humiliation). Ask before you touch them if you need to touch them for something (e.g. “Do you want me to put the band-aid on or do you want to do it?”). Keep jokes friendly, and don’t be afraid to apologize if you hurt feelings by mistake. Act the standard you want the kids to rise to. Kids model the adults they’re around - if they see grownups treating everyone with respect and consideration, they will tend to follow suit. By contrast, if they see grownups tease and bully, they’ll think that behavior is okay.

As well, take any complaints of bullying seriously and make good on your promises. My default response is along the lines of, “I’m sorry that I didn’t notice that at the time. I’ll keep a close eye out for it later, and I’ll pair you with [different kid] instead next class, okay?” And then I follow through with that. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. When I was a bullied kid, the adults who refused to do anything were frustrating, but worse were the adults who promised to do something and then never followed through. Making good on your promises is really important for maintaining the trust of the bullied kid. I won’t punish a kid for something I didn’t see unless there’s compelling evidence (because I know from being on the wrong end of it that a system like that could be too easily exploited by the bullies), but I will follow through with any action I’ve promised - pairing kids with different partners, making sure the bully doesn’t get the victim alone during class time, and keeping a closer eye on the kid who complained so that I can take action right away if the bully tries anything the next class being the most common promises I make.

Finally, accept that no system is perfect. No matter how hard you work at keeping your enviornment considerate and respectful, bullying will happen, and you have to address it when it does. you can affect the severity and frequency of it, but it’ll still happen sometimes. Do not fall into the trap of thinking, “My class/school/club/etc doesn’t have a bullying problem! We’re respectful!” Doesn’t work that way. All denial does is make an environment where bullying can thrive as long as it stays out of your sight. I admit I’m more prone to that thought process than I’d like, and I know better - I was bullied terribly at a school that refused to do anything because “We don’t have a bullying problem here!”

Age-appropriate interaction with autistic people

Hello, I am a teacher. I wanted to say thank you for your posts. I work with one student who is autistic and not quite non-verbal, but speaks very little.
I found myself talking to her as if she were much younger than she is because I had no way of telling if she was understanding. Your posts have helped me to understand that even though she doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand, and even if she doesn’t, I should still treat her like the 12-year-old she is

On Wednesday I spoke to her to let her know that I was wrong to have spoken to her like a little kid, and that I would now be speaking to her like a twelve-year-old. She seemed pleased. I have ASD traits myself, but I’ve never been non-verbal (even when I couldn’t speak, I still signed), so I didn’t really understand that non-verbal doesn’t mean not understanding necessarily. Thank you.

realsocialskills said:
Oh wow. That is heartening to hear. It’s wonderful that you realized that it was wrong to talk to her like a young child, and that you apologized. That is such an important sign of respect for her. Thank you for taking this seriously, and thank you for telling me about this.

I want to add that, in addition to talking to her like a 12 year old, you probably need to develop better skills at listening to her like a 12 year old.

Probably most of the people you’ve known in your life who had a small expressive vocabulary or spoke only sometimes were very young children. Her speech is not like that. She is thinking much more complex things than a young child is capable of. If you’re not used to listening to nonverbal or minimally verbal folks who are not babies, you probably don’t yet know how to do so in an age-appropriate way.

So it’s not just the way you initiate talking to her that needs to change, it’s also the way you respond to what she says. She has a lot to say. Possibly through her words; possibly mostly through her actions; possibly mostly through body language. But, in any case, she is 12 years old, and she has a lot of 12 year old things to say.

You can learn how to listen to her better. It’s a matter of respect, practice, and skills you can develop. For instance:

You can get a lot of mileage out of asking yes or no questions. (For some people, it helps to prompt with “yes or no” if it seems like answering yes/no questions isn’t a skill they have all the time) Eg: “Did you bring a lunch today - yes or no?”)

You can also use other kinds of two-option questions. Eg: If you know that she wants a book but she can’t tell you which book she wants, you can put your hand in the middle of the shelf and say “Up or down?” “Left or right?” “This one?”.

You can get even more out of asking a question with an open ended and closed response. Someone who can’t give you a meaningful answer to “What do you want to do?” may well be able to answer “Do you want to draw, or do something else?” Or “Is the answer England, or something else?”

You can also listen to what she says, make guesses about what she means, tell her what your guess is, and ask if you are right. For instance “You just said juice several times. I think that might be because you want to drink juice. Do you want juice, or do you mean something else?” Or “You just said "We’re all friends here!” and you sounded angry. Are you upset about something?“ Or "You just said "Separate but equal!”. Are you talking about discrimination?“

I’ve written about listening to atypical communication here, and here, and I wrote a more general post about how to provide respectful support to an autistic student here.

For some further perspective on this, I’d highly recommend reading the blog Emma’s Hope Book. It’s a blog written by the mother of a 12 year old autistic girl whose speech is unreliable (with some posts from her as well), and they have a lot of really important things to say about how to respect people whose communication is atypical. 

tl;dr: Your student has things to say, whether or not she has figured out how to say them. She is already saying some of them (in words or otherwise), whether or not you understand her communication. The more you assume that she is trying to communicate with you, and the more you assume that what she says is worthwhile, the more you will be able to understand her and teach her in age-appropriate ways.

I teach children and I don’t have much experience. Do you have any thoughts for how to interact with twins and make them feel respected as individuals? I can tell the girls in my class apart by their hair, but I sometimes mess up and blurt out the wrong name, and I can tell it hurts them. Any advice would be appreciated.

realsocialskills said:

That’s a really good question, and not something I have direct experience with.

I have a couple of guesses:

  • I wonder if it might help to make a bulletin board where all of the kids in your class could put a picture of themselves and something about their interests?
  • It seems to me that having something like that in the room might be a good reminder that you know that they are different people who like different things
  • What if you had *all* of the kids wear name tags? (I don’t know how logistically feasible that is, but I wish they would have done that in my school because I never once managed to learn the names of all the other kids in my class).
  • I think it’s important to apologize when you call them the wrong names, and not to get defensive about it if they'e angry or hurt. 

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to suggest

Do any of y'all have experience being a twin or teaching twins?