Heather Morgan is an expert across multiple disciplines. She is a coach, high risk doula, disability advocate & speaker. Heather is also disabled and neurodiverse. We met on Twitter, where I continue to connect with incredible people doing work that I am privileged to amplify through my blog. We had a fascinating exchange about the term special needs vs disability. In the world of education, special needs is loosely used for many categories of students. But as Heather explained to me:
I think ‘special needs’ can be used in ways that reveal truths about our unprocessed guilt and grief around children’s disabilities. And I think it also allows us to create a ‘separate but equal’ “solution” for kids with disabilities – with all the same harms for those with disabilities that came from previous segregation in schools and society alike.
I have a saying that I use in my coaching practice: disabled and neurodivergent folks are the canaries in our coal mines. Typically, miners took canaries into the mines with them to let them know when gas had built up to high and the oxygen was running out. If they left when the canaries stopped singing, then everyone got out alive.
Like canaries in mines of old, meeting our needs as disabled and neurodivergent individuals, in turn, ensures that everyone else is safe and has their needs met. As we consider reopening schools, the concerns I have about my disabled, autistic daughter’s needs being met at school are not only for her benefit but also for the benefit of all of her abled and disabled, neurotypical and neurodivergent classmates as well as the staff at her school. So here are a few questions I think we need to answer collectively before we go back to school.
To begin with, some students will be able to go back to school and others will not. Perhaps because of disabilities they have themselves or perhaps because they live with folks who are high risk. How will these students be accommodated? How will we ensure their education continues to be supported and that no child is left behind? And how will we help students catch up from work when each family had different abilities to support education within their home context during isolation?
Many students rely on Educational Assistants (EA) for everything from scribing to impulse control to toileting, and many students and teachers depend on them for classroom management and academic assistance, regardless of ability. Still, many jurisdictions have spent the last several years laying off EA’s. What actions will school boards take to ensure that all students requiring educational assistants have access to those EAs and that those with compromised immune systems and impulse control issues have 1:1 supports to keep themselves and those around them safe in the classroom?
As classroom numbers have gone up in jurisdictions around the continent, spacing between desks has become increasingly tight, to the point where wheelchairs simply cannot maneuver around classrooms. What began as a need for access for my daughter is now a safety issue for all students and their families. How will school boards reduce class sizes to ensure adequate separation between students? And how will they do so in ways that do more to INCLUDE vs EXCLUDE students with disabilities?
Mental health issues have taken a huge toll on students over the past three months – especially those who have felt targeted or expendable because of their race, class, or disabilities. A large number of students have also lost loved ones – including caregivers – to COVID. Yet mental health services – including sensory supports, emotional regulation work, and trauma-informed practices – have been sorely lacking in most schools. How will we use this as an opportunity to expand on, revamp, and reframe our mental health services to be inclusive and accessible to all students across the needs and abilities spectrum? How will we work to rebuild connections and reinvigorate our students with the agency they need to process the trauma they have individually and collectively been through? And how will we bridge the gaps between students whose experiences were mostly healthy with those who have suffered greatly?
As you can see, these concerns are not limited to our disabled and neurodiverse students. And their solutions will not simply benefit the few. As with all areas of universal design: when all are accommodated, all benefit.
The question is whether we’ll notice if the canaries we’re carrying stop singing their song.
Heather Morgan is a parenting and disability coach in Ontario, Canada, but sees clients virtually around the world. As an autistic, wheelchair-using mom of three with disabilities (19, 16 and deceased), and 17 years of professional experience as a coach specializing in grief, disability, and trauma, high risk doula, and disability advocate, Heather draws on a wealth of training, observations and reflections in her work to take individuals and families from surviving to thriving with disability and after trauma and loss. For more information, visit www.poweredbylove.ca