Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Celebrating Special Education Day in Your School

Happy Special Education Day! Every year, we celebrate the progress made since December 2nd, 1975, when President Ford ratified the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). Since renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), this law ruled that every American child is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in which they learn alongside general-education students wherever possible — marking a dramatic transition in our government’s approach to accessibility and inclusion. Later amendments established more comprehensive services for those ages 3–21, including programs for students transitioning out of high school, as well as additional training and resources for educators and parents alike (1).

Prior to the Disabilities Education Act of 1975, state laws largely determined what type of accommodation — if any — disabled students would receive (2). In many parts of the country, students with behavioral, intellectual, or physical disabilities were excluded from public schools entirely or relegated to separate, subpar facilities where they received little to no appropriate instruction (3). By 1970, it was estimated that only one in five were able to attend public school, while countless others were institutionalized in facilities that did not attempt to nurture their talents or interests (2, 4). Historically, they were overwhelmingly excluded from society and had a fraction of the opportunities they do now to accomplish their goals and lead fulfilling lives (5).

While we have undoubtedly made great strides, the holiday also presents a chance to reflect on how we can continue to progress and grow. For teachers, it might be difficult to know where to begin in the face of systemic barriers. Thankfully, there are many smaller steps we can take to make our classrooms more inclusive. Try these strategies to honor and celebrate special education in your learning community:

Get informed. Take some time to learn something new about trends in special education or get informed about your school’s special education offerings. Seek out new information on different types of disabilities; assistive technology; disability etiquette; and how to make class presentations, posters, and other curricular materials more accessible. To start, consider auditing a free online course like this one offered by the University of Illinois through Coursera.

Re-organize your space. If you’re a classroom teacher, take a moment to evaluate the layout and function of your room from a new perspective, considering the needs of all learners. Where relevant, arrange classroom furniture so that someone using a wheelchair or crutches can easily navigate the space. If you feel empowered to influence larger changes in your learning community, consider how your campus can evolve to better accommodate all students’ experiences, perhaps by connecting with students and their families to better understand their needs.

Prioritize representation. No matter the individual makeup of your classroom or school, representation is critical for every learning community and in every subject. During literacy and history classes, teach life-affirming stories featuring people with a range of disabilities. Discuss and discourage the use of ableist language in everyday life.

Practice and encourage empathy. Incorporate elements of Social and Emotional Learning to help students develop empathy for others and an appreciation for what makes each of them unique. Consider how you can bring conversations about empathy and empathy practice into your classroom today — to get started, download our free set of empathy activities:

Here’s to a brighter future for every child — whatever their needs. This is just the beginning!

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