The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed on July 25, 1990. Twenty-five years later, people with disabilities still have to worry about being accepted and understood by others. The ADA prohibits discrimination for people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities.
While the ADA exists to legally protect individuals, professionals who work with children with special needs need to take it a step further. Too often, other students at school are afraid to reach out to kids with disabilities. They do not understand how to help them, are worried about hurting them, and often do not know how to ask adults for assistance. Then there are other children that are simply afraid because the other kids are different. All of these circumstances need to be addressed at an early age for all involved.
Rather than wait for potential issues, school-based professionals should be proactive and set up programs within your district and schools. When you focus on awareness, it lends itself to acceptance of all individuals. Take time to observe students within your buildings and brainstorm ways to incorporate this into the school day. Perhaps in gym class, a wheelchair obstacle course is set up for students to try. This allows them to see what they may take for granted. Include every day challenges like carpeting, ramps, and bumps. Everyone could also play basketball from wheelchairs and make sure they do not use their feet for pushing.
In addition to visible handicaps, schools should talk about other differences that may be seen within classroom settings. Look for programs that address social skills, mental illness, autism, and anything else that may be necessary. There are programs available to use with elementary age students. One program that focuses on autism is The Sixth Sense by Carol Gray. This program is lesson based and allows us to explain behaviors that may appear to be upsetting, odd, or rude. Kids talk about the five senses and then the sixth, social sense, is added in. Everyone learns how all of the senses may affect the way they think and feel.
Whatever programs you use, the goal is to involve peers in an engaging way. The end result should be that they are supportive and get a better understanding of what others may be going through and why they may look, act, or be different. When children understand more, they able to accept and embrace differences to help others when they may need a friend.