January 23, 2009

Educators need to help create productive environments

Source: NYSUT News Wire

Educators need to be watchful over students with disabilities because they are prone to get picked on.

"Forty percent of kids bullied have disabilities," said David Whalen, head of a Disability Awareness Training company. "Many of them are physically assaulted."

More than half of those victims do not tell anyone, he said, adding that kids who are routinely victimized have higher levels of anxiety.

Disability awareness, he said, "is a form of diversity training, like cultural diversity, an offshoot of the Civil Rights Act." 

Awareness affects relationships, rights, integration, housing, employment, dignity, inclusion, policy, discrimination and transportation for people who have disabilities.

Only 7 percent of disabled people own their own home, Whalen told a group of BOCES educators at a NYSUT conference during the fall.

 "What if you never got to make a decision?" he asked, noting that many people with disabilities do not get that opportunity.

Transportation can be a major problem for homeowners and job seekers who have disabilities. Socializing can be rough, especially for those whose disabilities are not apparent, like people with affective or anxiety disorders.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Some are obvious, such as when a person has to use a wheelchair or motorized cart. Others include phobias, panic, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, mental retardation, learning disabilities or depression.

"The most untreated disability in America is depression," Whalen said. "It's a mental illness that affects both mind and body." Behavior plans, counseling, support groups and medication should be used to treat it, he said.

Today, more students with disabilities attend regular classrooms. Simple classroom accommodations might include having classes on the first floor, being seated near a teacher and being allowed to leave before the bell rings to be able to get out the door, Whalen said.

Administrative accommodations can include air purifiers, oral testing and social accommodations.

Communities can play a large role in accommodating people's disabilities, through housing, education, social roles, employment, civic engagement and spirituality. It can start with giving young people useful roles in the community.

Part of the credo for a person with disability, Whalen said, includes "Do not admire me. A desire to live a full life does not warrant adoration. Just respect me."

The speaker knows of what he speaks: One of his 11-year-old twin sons has cerebral palsy.

- Liza Frenette