Policy, Teaching

Honouring Student Voice

It’s time to invite students with disabilities to speak for themselves

“Why listen to student voices? Students are directly affected by what professionals promote as being ‘best practices.’ Whether or not these practices are truly ‘best’ can only be determined in collaboration with the students who are directly affected. [1]

“Nothing about us without us!” is the rallying cry in the disability rights movement, and some educators are listening. As students with disabilities are being included into regular classrooms in their neighbourhood schools, it is increasingly common to invite them to attend their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings. But is it enough to simply be present?

One of the authors of this article, Norman Kunc, has a disability. In his early years, he was placed in a segregated school for children with physical disabilities. Through his own advocacy, at age 13, he left the segregated school and was included in a regular junior high school. From there he went on to university, and later to grad school. For the last 25 years, Norm has had a successful career as a speaker and consultant to schools. He is often asked by educators and parents how it is that he has managed to create a successful life where many others with disabilities have not.

“As a disabled person,” he says, “I know that the single most important skill that helped me include myself into regular classes and society is my ability to initiate the support I need.”

We routinely encourage non-disabled students to speak up for themselves. However, this is not always the case for students with disabilities. These students are more often “spoken about” or “spoken for.” We do them a disservice that can have repercussions into adulthood.

For example, a number of years ago we met with a group of disability services support staff who work in colleges and universities throughout North America. “We have good news and bad news,” they told us. “The good news is that students with disabilities are increasingly entering universities and colleges. The bad news is that many are passive! They come into our offices and simply sit and wait to be told what to do.” We have to wonder whether the well-meaning advocacy and help these students received during their time at school has somehow contributed to what appears to be a kind of learned helplessness.

Learning to advocate for oneself is an essential skill for students with disabilities to acquire, one that schools should be supporting. But tapping into students’ own expertise about their needs will also lead to better teaching. Here are two steps that will reap both benefits:

Involve the student and the family in the educational planning process

Many teachers talk about the need for support, especially at the beginning of the year with a new student. When teachers prepare for the arrival of a student with a disability, they will generally look to either district itinerant staff or professional journals to get information about the disability. However, the best resources are often ignored. It is still surprisingly uncommon for teachers to ask the student or the family for their input. Those teachers who do ask find that the information they receive is helpful in several ways. First, it means that busy educators will not find themselves “reinventing wheels.” The strategies and supports most useful for that student at home are often the same strategies and supports that will be useful for the teacher. We like to refer to this by suggesting that we “trust experience over expertise.”

If you want information about the student, the people who have the most information are the people who spend the most time with the student. Obviously, the person who spends the most time with the student is the student him or herself! However, in our society, those who are seen to have the most expertise are ironically those who know the child the least. While expertise may indeed be useful, the problem is that it is impossible to have expertise on an individual student. Expertise on a disability is based in generalizations, but because experience is based in particular information about the individual, it is often the most practical resource we can access. And of course, in the process we are helping students learn to speak up and advocate for themselves!

It is vital to have the student play an active role in the IEP process. In some schools, students are learning to facilitate their own IEPs. They are assisted to prepare PowerPoint and interactive whiteboard presentations, and coached to facilitate the meeting itself. Individuals who participate report satisfaction, commitment, and enthusiasm, and come to understand the importance of learning the critical skills necessary for self-determination and advocacy.

When helping students prepare for an active role in their IEPs, we might start by asking a simple question: “How can I help you?” However, because many students are unaccustomed to being asked, they may not have a ready answer. If the only response you get is, “I don’t know,” a pithy and effective response on your part might be, “Well, what would you say if you did know?” In asking this question, we give the student permission to speculate and give an opinion, rather than feeling pressured to give the right answer. If still no answer is forthcoming, then we suggest becoming a waiter and offering a menu: “I can do this; I can do that. What do you think would make most sense for you?”

It takes practice to speak up. And for some it also means having access to the right kind of augmentative communication. Educators can create opportunities for participation, and advocate for communication systems. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do when others are moving in to speak on behalf of a student is simple “crowd control.” Some students need a little extra time to gather their thoughts. Teachers can ensure that the necessary space is allowed before the faster students, or even the teacher assistant, move in.

Involve the student in the creation of behaviour plans

Freiberg and Lapointe[2] note that in order for education to fully move into the 21st century, a philosophical change in the way we think about classroom management must take place. According to these authors, this shift requires us to move away from teacher-directed classrooms and schools toward student–teacher partnerships and collaboration. Teachers, in this view, are resources and facilitators for student learning.

One of the “last bastions” we are confronting in this educational shift is the development of behaviour plans. It is still rare for students to be actively involved in developing behavioural supports for themselves. Education, as we know, is not simply about learning content. It is also about developing responsible, caring citizens who are able to deal well with each other. Including students in the process of designing behavioural supports in non-punitive exchanges encourages a movement away from extrinsic and rote “rule-following” (which is generally only effective when the teacher is there to watch, if at all) to intrinsic self-management.

Disruptive students are often overlooked as valuable sources of information. There are insights to be gained when we involve these students. Some principals and teachers regularly attend “detention hall” and spend time talking with the students. We suggest that students be actively included in interrogating the behavioural interventions they experience.

Katherine Herr wrote, “There is something about merely asking certain questions within the context of a school that sends a ripple through it and begins to interrupt the way everyday practices are viewed.”[3] We recommend that administrators and teachers take time to ask questions about disciplinary practices. One such question might be: How is a sense of belonging created and maintained in my classroom or my school, and what are the practices, policies, and attitudes that support it? Conversely, another question might be: How is a sense of belonging undermined, and what are the policies, practices, and attitudes that contribute to its erosion? Involving students in the development of their IEPs and behaviour plans can elicit surprising and important insights. The potential for collaborative change and growth is there. The question is, will we tap into it? 

First published in Education Canada, March 2013


EN BREF – Il existe en Amérique du Nord un mouvement visant à intégrer les élèves ayant des incapacités dans tous les aspects de la vie scolaire. Dans les meilleures écoles inclusives, les enseignants veillent à ce que les élèves participent activement au développement de leurs propres programmes d’enseignement individualisé et soutiens comportementaux. Cette façon de faire comporte l’avantage supplémentaire de les aider à développer leur capacité de s’exprimer et de faire valoir leurs besoins. Dans cet article, Norman Kunc et Emma Van der Klift indiquent que la capacité d’amorcer la mise en place du soutien requis constitue une compétence essentielle dont les élèves ayant des incapacités auront besoin toute leur vie. Ils proposent aussi que les élèves adoptent une vision plus large de l’intégration en remettant activement en question les pratiques et les politiques qui contribuent ou qui nuisent au sentiment d’appartenance de tous les élèves.

[1] E. B. Keefe, V. M. Moore, and F. R. Duff, Listening to the Experts: Students with disabilities speak out (Baltimore MD: Paul Brookes, 2006).

[2] H. J. Freiberg and J. M. Lapointe, “Research-based Programs for Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems,” in Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, practice and contemporary issues, eds. C. M. Evertson and C. S. Weinstein (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006), 735-782.

[3] K. Herr, in Keefe et al, Listening to the Experts, 187.

Meet the Expert(s)

Norman Kunc

Norman Kunc, MSc, and Emma Van der Klift, MA, have spent more than 30 years working to ensure that people with disabilities are able to take their rightful place in schools, workplaces, and communities, providing training to school districts, human service agencies, employers and advocacy groups.

Born with cerebral palsy, Norman Kunc holds a Bachelor’s degree in Humanities and a Master of Science degree in Family Therapy.

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Emma Van der Klift

Norman Kunc, MSc, and Emma Van der Klift, MA, have spent more than 30 years working to ensure that people with disabilities are able to take their rightful place in schools, workplaces, and communities, providing training to school districts, human service agencies, employers and advocacy groups.

Emma Van der Klift is a mediator, negotiator and trainer who has worked extensively in the non-profit sector with children and adults with developmental disabilities. She holds a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis.

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