Saturday, June 8, 2013

Students with Disabilities Helping Around the School

It is a less common practice, but still not an uncommon practice, to set up "vocational skills programs" for students with disabilities that include some type of janitorial duty.  Students with disabilities are then seen in groups cleaning up after other students while those students go off to class and learn curriculum content.  Just a couple of examples of this:
I work with teams to set up programs for students with significant disabilities.  We try to focus on creating programs that facilitate authentic inclusion, address quality of life indicators and are driven by priority learning outcomes that come from a team-based person centered planning approach. 
One quality of life indicator is that of being able to authentically contribute to the world around you.  We try to focus on both the contribution of being and the contribution of doing.  There are many opportunities in inclusive classroom settings for this.  Yet, for some of the students on my caseload, they respond positively to more tangible ways of contributing.  

For me it is about creating individual programs that are focused on learning.  To have a student do the school recyling as a compliance driven kids with disabilities only do this task in the name of them learning specific work-place skills makes no sense because all of the skills they would learn in that situation are ones they can learn just by being in general education classes and settings.  To have a student be a part of a club that does recycling and donates the money to some worthwhile cause and then do recycling with a "mixed ability" group is a completely different situation. 
One of the students on my caseload helps in the library at his school. He starts by checking in and out books (scanning process) with each student.  Right now we are working on him saying hi.  Next year we will expand it and teach the other students in the classes how to model the use of his communication devise when communicating with him and hopefully he will start to use it to respond to the things they are saying.  He then helps with shelving books.  This is his heavy work.  He interacts with the librarian throughout the time.  He enjoys doing it and there is a good balance in that he is working on communication skills, fine motor skills (the scanning of books requires some hand-eye cooridination for him), computer skills, heavy work...etc.  It opens up opportunities around functional use of literacy skills (finding where books go in alphabetical order) in the future.  He enjoys books in general and it might even open up job opportunities in the future. 
Another one of my students is a delivery person for the school.  He is working on basic visual schedule and matching skills.  There are visuals around the school at each classroom door.  He has a schedule with where he is to go with matching visuals and the folders where what he is delivering also have matching visuals on them.  He uses a simple sequential message devise to have a conversation with the teacher or whomever opens the door when he delivers items.  
Could these students be in class all the time?  My feeling is we have to be conscious of not decreasing social status and we need to be conscious of waiting until an appropriate age to start working on vocational style skills and we have to conscious of embedding priority learning outcomes like communication, socialization, personal management...etc. in to the "jobs" we give students.  We also need to feel confident that these are things that make them feel like they are contributing as that is the goal behind these jobs.  We always talk about inclusion as "belonging" and part of belonging involves feeling that you are responsible for some part of making the community work.  For some kids that needs to be tangible.
Doing the same janitorial work day after day without any other objectives besides just compliance, completion and cleanliness is not about education and it serves only to continue to stigmatize and opress people with disabilities.  We need to make sure first and foremost that we are meeting as many of our priority learning outcomes in the classroom and general education activities and then we need ot make sure that the ones we are addressing outside of those settings are done in a way that is respectful and takes in to account the dignity of the human being.  
Beyond this being an issue of dignity and respect, it is an issue of security and safety for students with disabilities.  When we focus on compliance there is the potential that people with disabilities will become increasingly passive as they get older.  They get pats on their back for doing these menial tasks and become people-pleasers.  I have run in to too many people who see this as a good thing.  As a parent who needs to think about a child who will function at some level of interdependence as an adult this kind of stuff sets off extreme alarm bells.  When we educate any student we need to ensure that we are empowering them.

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