Education-based environments, (both K-12 and Higher Education) are at times not set up very well for a diversity of learners. You’ve probably experienced this before- a teacher who teaches a particular way and you have difficulty adapting to that style (true/false questions anyone?), or there is a building you can’t get into because of poor design without an accessible entrance, or a website that doesn't function well with your adaptive technology (hey, even we continue to learn in these areas!). But even with these constraints, it's true that most educators, parents and community members want to see as many students supported and successful as possible. The idea of "special needs" came about, partially because of this caring. But...

Hand reaching out toward sun. Photo credit Viktor Hanacek.

Hand reaching out toward sun. Photo credit Viktor Hanacek.

Let's re-frame this idea

One way to look at this is to consider that you don’t have “special needs” (and everyone else doesn’t?), but rather current systems are not set up with the forethought of access. And come on, to talk about one's needs as “special”, but another's needs as just needs, can be kind of offensive- some might even say discriminating and marginalizing. Bottom line- WE ALL have needs, and they are very different from each other, and are met in different ways. So friends, let’s refocus on the concept of access.

Let’s look at what access really means:

Miriam Webster’s definition:

: a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone

: a way of being able to use or get something

: permission or the right to enter, get near, or make use of something or to have contact with someone

One way to think about disability-related needs is to re-frame as needing access to your learning environment. Your high school and college will function in the mode of “determining accommodations”- that is- making individualized plans to accommodate you. In some way this is good, and very important. But using the framework of access changes the conversation to a shared responsibility. So, let's try it out.

What will you need access to in order to demonstrate your capacity as a student considering higher education? Examples follow:

  • I need access to enlarged text for any in-class assignments.
  • I need to access a lowered bed in my room so I can more easily get in and out.
  • I need access to all text books electronically during my senior year of high school so I can try out text-reading software on my laptop.
  • I need access to opportunities for meeting new people so I can become more comfortable talking with others in social settings.

Want more info? The ideas above extend from the concepts of universal design and micro-aggressions (relative to persons with disabilities). Start there!

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