Insights into the world of teaching, through the lens of a student and educator with a visible physical disability
Written By Guest Author, Cynthia Berringer, OCT
My name is Cynthia. Born with cerebral palsy, which affects my muscle coordination and mobility on land, I made it my mission in life, from a very young age, to see what the world had to offer to me and what I had to offer the world in spite of my visible physical disability.
Prior to becoming an elementary teacher, I spent over ten years heavily involved in competitive Para-swimming and living out one of my childhood goals of belonging to a team just like the other kids my age. I was also chasing my dream of one day wearing the maple leaf on my swim cap while representing Canada at international-level competitions. In 2011, my dream became a reality when I was nominated to the Canadian Para-Swimming Team that competed at the Pan-Pacific Para-Swimming Championships in Edmonton, Alberta. At this meet I became a multiple medalist for Canada for the first time in my swimming career.
Once the hype of competition died down, I was faced with deciding on my future career path. Swimming was fun and an amazingly rewarding adventure, but I was ready to seek out what the workplace had to offer me and what I had to contribute to the working world as a woman who also has a visible physical disability. I knew two things for certain: 1. I enjoyed working with children and youth; and 2. I desired a job that provided me with both consistent hours and financial security. One day near the end of my last season as a competitive swimmer, I had what I like to call a “light bulb moment” and made the decision to apply to Teacher’s College to obtain my Bachelors of Education and become an elementary teacher. In 2015, I graduated from Brock University with my Bachelor of Education, specializing in the primary and junior teaching divisions (K-6), and I have not looked back since. I am currently an elementary school teacher in the public school system within the Greater Toronto Area.
I would like to share eight insights that I would provide future educators through the lens of a person with a visible physical disability who first “rolled” through the halls of public school as a student, and now as a teacher.
- Communication is key to creating a happy and trusting rapport between the educator and the student. In my experience, this is true for all students, but is especially important for students with visible physical disabilities. Students with visible physical disabilities may enter the classroom setting feeling isolated or nervous because they see themselves as different from the other students and the teacher in the classroom. Address the student with a visible physical disability by their given name. Welcome the student as you would any other student in the class. Include the student with a disability in large group and small group discussion. Ask questions directly to the student, to the student’s parents or guardians, and/or the special education team at your school if you have questions regarding the student’s disability type, classroom accommodations or how to modify classroom layouts and/or activities in order to enable the student with the visible physical disability to participate fully alongside his or her classroom peers.
- When possible, create spacious learning spaces for all students to explore the classroom and learn together. For example, ensuring that the entranceway to the classroom is clear enables both a student who is ambulatory and a student who uses a wider mobility aid (e.g., wheelchair) to enter and exit the classroom easily. When creating table groups or centres within the classroom, try to ensure that there is ample space for a student who uses a mobile aid to move around the table groupings and centres freely. This enables all students to have easy access to all elements of the classroom, as well to explore and work with peers freely throughout the school day. Setting up the classroom with accessibility in mind prior to the start of the school year makes it easier to accommodate for the student(s) who uses a mobility aid to enter your classroom and be fully included in all learning experiences within your classroom on any given day throughout the school year.
- Researching and presenting different resources within your classroom assists in continuing to “normalize” positive inquiry and discussion around various visible physical disabilities. Have books available on the bookshelf or in the reading centre for the students to explore that talk about different visible physical disabilities and/or have illustrations showing characters using mobility aids while doing typical child-friendly activities. Use stories and multimedia presentations within your lessons that depict people with different visible physical disabilities in a positive way. Incorporate adaptive activities into learning tasks or centre-time activities for the students (e.g., Have the students try to write their names using the braille symbols; have the student play pool noodle tag). In my experience, doing this has an overall positive effect on students’ understanding of and respect for people’s visible differences and differing abilities.
- Provide choice to all students in regards to how they can complete learning tasks or present their knowledge and understanding of a given topic. For example, allow all students to choose whether they want to present their ideas using pencil and paper, word processing software, or a video. This allows all students to express their thinking using their strengths. This methodology prevents any student’s weaknesses due to individual physical or learning challenges from becoming evident to other students during group learning tasks or group sharing times. Every student’s voice is heard, and their strengths are exhibited to their peers.
- Create learning tasks where all students have opportunities to choose and do some independent inquiry about different visible physical disabilities and/or environmental accessibility features. When students have a degree of autonomy over their own learning, they are more excited about completing projects or learning tasks, presenting their thoughts and findings to the class, and later, engaging in critical-thinking discussions about what they have learned with their peers.
- Provide hands-on opportunities for students and staff to try adaptive sports or activities. This allows both students and staff the chance to try a new activity and have some fun in a safe environment. For example, schedule workshops(s) with organization such as Para-Sport Ontario for students and staff to try some adaptive sports, such as wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, and boccia. Giving students and staff the opportunity to learn about, ask questions about, and try different adaptive sports creates understanding and increased positive discussions about it, and increases the comfort level of both staff and students in incorporating or participating in adaptive sports and activities, whether within the school day or as an extracurricular activity outside of school hours.
- Provide all students with information about adaptive sports or activities and how to get involved as a participant or volunteer, in the form of a pamphlet or website link to take home to show their parents or guardians. This provides an opportunity for students of all ability levels to see how they can get involved in adaptive sports within their community.
- Research and create opportunities for students with visible physical disability to participate in extracurricular school activities alongside their peers. Create opportunities for students with visible physical disabilities to participate in school clubs and teams. This creates an inclusive environment for all students and helps to create respect and understanding of difference and diversity amongst the student population.
In closing, throughout my years of “rolling” through the halls of public school, formerly as a student and now as an educator with a visible physical disability, the personal insights I’ve shared above are some of the key ways I feel that I have seen success in striving to continue to promote inclusive learning opportunities within mainstream learning environments for children and youth of all ability levels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cynthia Berringer is an elementary school teacher within the Greater Toronto Area. She has a keen interest in advocating for the continuing development of sport, recreational, and leisure programming for children, youth and adults with physical disabilities. In her leisure time, Cynthia is involved in Para-Sport and enjoys swimming, horseback riding and adaptive alpine skiing. Cynthia holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology from York University and a Bachelor of Education from Brock University, specializing in the elementary division.
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