Magazine Feature

Beautiful Differences

Think your students are too young to discuss differing abilities? Think again.
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Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

Alex Fidler, age eight, remembers a lot of things about Joel Blecha’s first-grade class at Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School—but mostly she remembers becoming friends with a man with dwarfism.

Her year in Blecha’s class included rides on mass transit, field trips to the zoo and a visit to a job site where Mr. Blecha got squirted by water from a broken pipe. But Alex most vividly recalls a visit to the nonprofit Access Living, where she met some friendly people who happened to have disabilities.

“One of them had dwarfism. One of them needed to have, like, bigger font so they could see better. One of them had cerebral palsy,” says Alex, now in second grade. “But they weren’t different. They just needed some things so they could get around better.”

This kind of statement makes Blecha happy. An enthusiastic and self-described “outside-the-walls” teacher, Blecha has built a social studies curriculum for first-graders that centers on accessibility for people with disabilities—what Blecha calls “beautiful differences.”

It’s a good fit at Parker School, an independent pre-K to 12 private school serving Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The school represents core values of community and diversity; its ethos opens with the sentence, “We are deliberately composed of a diverse group of people so that we can learn how to honor the dignity and experience of every human being.”

But when the topics of diversity and civil rights come up, many people first think about race, gender or sexual orientation; people with disabilities can be overlooked.

“One of the unexpected joys of this accessibility curriculum is the number of parents saying, ‘I never knew this stuff!’” Blecha says. “‘I’m learning this stuff right along with my kid.’”


An Idea Born on the El Train

Blecha came to Parker School in 2011 after 10 years in the New York public school system. He spent the summer of 2012 riding Chicago’s public transportation, taking in the city’s famous architecture and mining ideas for a social studies curriculum.

One day, while navigating some stairs with a stroller-bound toddler, Blecha had what he calls a “light bulb moment.” For someone with a disability, those stairs would be tough—if not impossible—to manage.

“Six- and 7-year-olds have this real strong sense of justice,” Blecha says. “I wanted to kind of channel that in a social justice lens. I thought accessibility, learning about how people move around the city with disabilities, would be a great way to teach social studies.”


An Eye-Opening Partnership

Blecha had an idea, but he needed help. He discovered Access Living, a nonprofit organization that helps Chicagoans with disabilities live engaged, independent lives.

The organization provides direct services to about 1,200 people; education and outreach are priorities, so Blecha’s proposed partnership seemed mutually beneficial. Working with Access Living connected him to their staff—most of whom have disabilities—and allowed students to meet the people they were learning about. Meanwhile, Access Living had an opportunity to reach an important segment of the population: early-childhood learners.

“Part of what we do to make more systemic change is to try and change mindsets,” says Gary Arnold, the public relations coordinator for Access Living. “What we learned last year is a great audience for that is very young people. … It was almost like we could see it happening in real time, the information being absorbed by these kids and what kind of impact that had.”


A Curriculum of Accessibility

Blecha’s accessibility curriculum started by inviting visitors to his classroom. This made a deep impression, especially when a woman with cerebral palsy told the students that as a little girl she liked to ice skate and dress up for Halloween. Her story helped students understand that, while she was physically different, she wanted the same things as everyone else: to have fun, make friends and be independent. Blecha also introduced students to people with disabilities within their school community. His students met with a ninth-grade Parker student who has muscular dystrophy and an eighth grader with a congenital upper-limb deficiency. Both talked to the class about their disabilities and challenges.

Get Started

Blecha, Manley and Arnold offer these tips for starting an accessibility curriculum:

Introduce students to people with disabilities.
Reach out to organizations that can help connect you to people with physical differences who can jump-start a conversation and personalize the issue for students. Be sure to partner with individuals who are comfortable with frank questions.

Focus on language.
Language is a powerful tool—one available to any teacher. Start by implementing people-first language, e.g., saying “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person.”

Use the school and its surroundings.
Have students assess the school building for things such as uneven sidewalks, hard-to-read signage and narrow doors. Ask what they notice, and encourage them to document.

Bring math into the equation.
Measure differences to build on cross-curricular opportunities. Blecha’s class, for example, borrowed a wheelchair from the school nurse, measured it and then inspected the school grounds to see where it could and couldn’t fit.

Involve parents and let them know what to expect.
Keep families informed throughout. Students are likely to go home and talk about experiences, and being in the know gives a context for their comments and questions.

Take the students’ lead.
Young children can be insightful and observant. Paying attention to student comments and working their questions and ideas into the lessons and activities helps keep learning authentic.

Meanwhile, Blecha implemented lessons geared toward teaching students to advocate for folks with disabilities. The students made posters for hypothetical schools and restaurants about allowing access for service dogs and sign language interpreters; they also became well-versed in people-first language. Blecha also downloaded school blueprints to iPads so the students could measure Parker’s halls and doorways and calculate if their new friends with disabilities would have access.

Finally, Blecha got the kids out of the classroom. First, they visited Access Living’s “green” facility with a fully accessible rooftop garden in the heart of Chicago where the students inspected accessibility solutions. Later, they took the Green Line train and learned how the Chicago Transit Authority implements the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They also investigated the accessibility-retrofitted Tribune Tower. All the while, Blecha made sure students noted the places that had disability access and those that did not. After each trip, he asked them to summarize and respond to what they’d learned. Ultimately, the students created an accessibility timeline, showing major events in the struggle for equality for people with disabilities.

“It got so much attention because [Blecha] didn’t just do this as an isolated study,” says Mary Ann Manley, head of Parker Lower School. “They were out measuring the doors and checking the elevator outside. … They took their concerns to the administration. The parents were involved in field trips. … It just had a very dynamic evolution.”

Blecha’s accessibility curriculum was shaped by the urban bustle of Chicago, but Parker staff members say it could work nearly anywhere.

“All you need,” Manley says, “is a teacher with an interest and an administration that will allow a teacher to take an idea and run with it.”

Want to teach students about ability and access? Try this lesson.

Thinking of adapting this curriculum for older students? Try introducing your students to the concept of Universal Design.