I remember sending my son to his first day of school with his new glasses. My anxiety was high, worrying about what the other students would say to him and how their comments would make him feel. Would they call him names, or would they think his glasses were “cool” and make him feel like the center of attention with his new dark-rimmed fashion accessory?
As a teacher, I knew how cruel other children’s hearts could be to students with disabilities. I often, and still to this day, wondered where our students were learning this behavior. Were they genuinely intrigued and curious about students who looked different? Were they mimicking the behavior of their parents or older siblings? Were they getting a self-esteem boost for simply looking normal when another student did not? After 18 years in the education industry, I still do not have the answer to this question.
What Can Teachers Do to Include Students with Disabilities?
Many students are never allowed to relate to people with disabilities on their level. As teachers, openly and candidly discussing individuals with challenges different from what is familiar to our students is vital. Sparking discussions within the classroom on disability is necessary for students to establish a concrete understanding at a young age that those with disabilities want, need, and struggle to be included. Even though the “put yourself in their place” approach is not always successful, open discussions and allowing students to ask questions about people with disabilities can provide children with a wealth of positive knowledge. These discussions, in turn, help students better understand how to include, help, and react to their disabled peers.
Celebrating Persons with Disabilities in the Classroom
I have never taught a class that did not enjoy sitting gathered up on the carpet area of the classroom and listening to me read a picture book. No matter the age of the students, picture books are long enough to engage them entirely and hold their attention. In addition, students have always been able to relate to picture books easily; so why not use them to promote inclusion within our classrooms? As International Day of Persons with Disabilities approaches on December 3, so does an opportunity to discuss inclusion with students. Established by the United Nations in 1992, this day celebrates the understanding of persons with disabilities and promotes the dignity, rights, and well-being of the disabled. The day also highlights the gains disabled people can bring into our lives politically, socially, economically, and culturally. Below are five picture books sure to capture the beauty and rawness of inclusion with your students.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
Focused on the disability of stuttering, I Talk Like a River describes a boy’s visit with his father to a rolling river and how the river compares to his voice. Full of gorgeous figurative language and illustrations, this story has a Book Page Starred Review calling it “Unquestionably one of the best picture books of 2020.”
Shane Burcaw is a hilariously open and honest advocate when it comes to people with disabilities. Burcaw lives with spinal muscular dystrophy and is completely wheelchair-bound, so he understands what it is like to be a kid with a disability. Even more impressive, Burcaw will Skype with your class for free to allow your students to learn from an expert. What a fantastic opportunity to help celebrate the International Day of Persons With Disabilities!
What Happened to You? By James Catchpole
This is an easy-to-understand book with a clear lesson on inclusion presented in a kind and simple way. A boy named Joe, who has one leg, is questioned by children at his local playground about his disability. Joe discreetly and kindly teaches the other children a lesson on empathy. Bonus: author James Catchpole, who has a disability, and his wife Lucy created lesson plans for teachers to use when sharing this book with students.
Just Ask! By Sonia Sotomayor
Best known by her position as the first Hispanic to serve on the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor has written a handful of books for children. Diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 7, Sotomayor has had her battles with others negatively judging her disability and says, “For me, this is the book that I have had in my heart for 30 years.” Sotomayor’s book also currently sits at number 7 on Amazon’s Best Sellers in children’s books on disabilities.
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete
Based on the real-life experiences of her ten-year-old son, Peete’s book celebrates the triumphs of autism. She points out that even though there are some things autistic children struggle with, there are far more things in which they excel. One of the most notable features of this book is that Peete’s daughter, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, co-wrote this book with her mother, allowing for real-life feelings and experiences to shine through in the storyline.
Sharing the feelings, adventures, and outcomes of picture book characters with disabilities is a surefire way to have a heartfelt classroom celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Not only will your students relish in the knowledge they obtain, but you will be bettering their understanding and acceptance of the disabled for years to come!
Ashley Chennault is currently a freelance writer and 4th-grade teacher in the small coastal town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Ashley is in her 18th year of teaching and holds a master of arts degree in elementary education. In addition, she became Nationally Board Certified in 2020. In her free time, she enjoys her second job as a contract grant writer for philanthropy corporations, boating, beaching, cooking, watching her teenage sons play sports, and spending time with her three adopted wiener dogs, Georgie, Henry, and Tripp.
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