It is crucial for every child to have unique experiences with their peers. One thing a lot of neurotypical children (those without learning disabilities) miss out on is interaction with neurodivergent students (those with learning disabilities.) Conversely, it is important for students with learning disabilities to have interactions with their fellow peers, as it offers them social experience and sometimes even a friend. Most schools lack inclusion programs for students with disabilities and it is holding everyone back from having a full educational experience.
Having more inclusion programs in the Bethlehem Area School District will impact peer-to-peer interactions, increasing awareness about disabilities and decreasing negative behaviors toward students with disabilities. So, how does interaction with disabled students benefit neurotypical students? Firstly, these interactions help students learn that the world is made up of more than just others like them. Increased awareness is just the start. Peer-to-peer interactions can stretch neurotypical students beyond what they’re comfortable with, helping them develop empathy, compassion and the skills necessary to communicate effectively. If these interactions go well, a byproduct might be students learning that they can be friends with students with intellectual disabilities; that they are more alike than they realize. Exposure to the needs of intellectually disabled students can also provide their neurotypical peers with insight into careers that serve people with disabilities, from special education to various forms of therapy.
For neurodivergent students, having peer-to-peer programming is equally beneficial, but for different reasons. Many students with intellectual disabilities struggle to make friends. When students get to know one another, it’s possible to see what they have in common instead of what makes them different. Being included in the larger school community helps students with disabilities feel like they belong in the school, and not just sequestered away like they don’t deserve to be in real school.
Clearly, this type of interaction needs a plan. First, mainstream and special education teachers need to learn to collaborate to incorporate intellectually disabled students into general education. Depending on students’ needs, this could be shortened assignments or even a matching game or a coloring page. Encouraging students to work in groups to discuss and explore course topics is another way to reinforce the content.
However, school is not just all about academics. Finding ways to incorporate neurodivergent students into activities like band, theater, cheerleading, or sports, will deepen their sense of belonging. Beyond academics and activities, inclusion programs raise awareness about what disabilities are and how disabilities affect students every day. Empathy exercises can be used to help typical students understand what it might be like to live with a disability. For example, kids could be asked to write with oven mitts on to demonstrate fine motor challenges or students could be blindfolded to gain empathy for blind students. Raising awareness will help students understand and will likely develop empathy.
No one lives in a bubble. Special needs students should not be sequestered away and neurotypical students should not believe that they are the only type of kid around. The BASD should consider seeking out peer ambassadors, neurotypical students who already embody a commitment to working with their intellectually-disabled peers and can teach others the same skills. These students are out there and are an untapped resource. When exposure becomes experience, relationships can be built. Students on both sides will have a friendly face to talk to at school and potentially a life changing experience.
Ivy Tharouniatis is a Junior at Liberty High School. Her exposure to special needs began at a unique K-8 charter school in Ann Arbor, MI whose mission was to provide compassionate and informed peer-to-peer interactions and support. She is currently a staff supervisor at Bitty & Beau’s in Bethlehem, a coffee shop dedicated to employing adults with intellectual disabilities. Once in college, she hopes to become an Occupational Therapist and plans to work with neuro-divergent children and adults.
We will all profit from a more diverse, inclusive society, understanding, accommodating, even celebrating our differences, while pulling together for the common good.—Ruth Bader Ginsburg