Building an Enabling Environment


Handicap sign

Handicap sign (Photo credit: MattGrommes)

In the last post, Will wrote about the disconnect between the manner in which people with disabilities are depicted by mass media and the sometimes harsh reality that students with disabilities may face in schools every day.

Continuing with the theme of special education, I recently read a fascinating essay on a designer, Sara Hendren, who challenges conventional perspectives of disability and access, and which ties into our advocacy here on EcoSchools for the importance and impact of a school’s environment on well-being and learning.

In “Pretty Ramp Machine” by Tim Maly, Hendren presents a more inclusive vision of disability:

“What I want is much more energy and imagination given to questions of access and use — not tiresome and medicalized ‘accommodations,’ but edited cities where alternate bodies are assumed to be part of the landscape, and where the use of structures and tools might be less scripted,” she says.

This passage resonated with me, as in the realm of special education, we also speak frequently of “accommodations” for students with disabilities, as if all that is required is a systematic program or intervention that will magically enable a student to progress academically. But as Hendren points out, this very word, “accommodations,” reveals a deficit in our thinking. If we truly value diversity and inclusion, then we would develop our curriculum and our systems with access and use for all in mind from the very beginning, rather than as an afterthought.

Hendren thinks designers and architects can do better. “It’s possible to have a very ‘correct’ idea about accommodations, provisions for schooling and such, and still presume a medical model,” says Hendren. “You can carry around the notion that a democratic society is one in which everyone thrives — regardless of productivity, regardless of capacity — and want to provide for those ‘needs.’”

But it’s a much more radical notion to start to think about the ways structures have been un-imagined or preemptively imagined without much variation in body or mind. What would it mean to really profoundly undo our sense of which bodies count?” (bold added)

Here is food for thought. What if we designed school environments, curriculum, and transitional opportunities with a diversity of student needs in mind?

In such an approach, failure would no longer be the hidden option. We would instead consider what students who might “fail” in conventional routes might succeed in otherwise, and provide opportunities for them to engage successfully in that divergency.

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