During an Individualized Education Program meeting back in 2013, I was asked to talk about disability awareness to my daughter Jillian’s cerebral palsy diagnosis to her classmates.
With the help of an inclusion specialist, we crafted a talk that can be replicated to suit other children’s needs.
Step 1: The Icebreaker
After Jillian’s class settled in after their lunch recess, the inclusion specialist and I waited for them in their classroom. After a brief introduction, the specialist played the 12-minute illustrated video of “The Sneetches” off YouTube.
Not only did this provide the perfect backdrop to a rich discussion, but it also served as the ideal story as most of the children in the classroom were not familiar with this story at all.
Step 2: A Brief Discussion
After we watched “The Sneetches,” the inclusion specialist asked the following questions: “Do you think the stars were important? What did it feel like to have a star? What did it feel like not to have a star?”:
In a brief time, the children in the classroom were saying that the stars did not matter. All people are important and should be included – a person’s character is more important than anything else.
Step 3: “What’s the Same?”
The inclusion specialist handed the microphone over to me. I proceeded to ask several questions of the class. “Before I get started,” I asked, “I have some questions. How many of you like strawberry ice cream? How many of you like pizza? How many of you like to run? How many of you like cartoons?”
For every question, almost every child’s hand went up in the air. They were interested.
They were ready to hear about Jillian’s story.
Step 4: “What’s Different?”
When talking about Jillian’s disability, I admit that the words were a bit harder to say than I thought they would be.
I was very straightforward. I decided before we talked that I would guide this section without input from the class.
“I wanted to tell you that while Jillian has many parts of her that are the same as you, she has some differences as well. Jillian has a disability called Cerebral Palsy. You might see her walk a bit slower. She has an aide in the classroom. You might notice that it takes her a bit longer to do the projects your class is doing. How many of you have seen her write on a keyboard?” The entire class raised their hands.
The conversation went on a bit further, but not too much further. I wanted to get to the fun part of Jillian’s differences. “I have some more questions for you: How many of you have run in a race before?”
Jillian was the only one raising her hand. “How many of you have stood up on the back of a horse before?” Jillian was the only one raising her hand. Many of the children were ready to talk. They wanted to talk about a grandparent who uses a walker or a cousin with a disability.
Step 5: Humanize the Disability
For the final part of my talk, I brought in some pictures to share with Jillian’s class. I know that for several months now, they have seen Jillian do things differently than they do. I wanted to show them how rich her life is outside of school.
I invited Jillian up to be in front of the class, and she was delighted. You read that right! Jillian was delighted.
Step 6: Close the Talk
It was time to end the discussion. I asked the class if they realized what was on Jillian’s shirt.
“A star,” a little girl said. I had them think about the stars in “The Sneetches” again. Jillian got up and then passed out large star stickers for her classmates to have. It wasn’t necessary at that point.
Jillian’s disability is not hidden. Her classmates see it every day. But we somehow took away any stigma or question surrounding it, and after she attended school with a classroom of young inclusion ambassadors.