Resources for Learning About the Experiences of People With Disabilities

Resources for Learning About the Experiences of People With Disabilities Encourage Families to Learn About the Human Experience

Throughout life, the experiences that we have amongst others allow us to learn about the human experience. At any age, we are able to make observations about others’ appearance and actions, and to gain insight (however basic or complex it may be) by processing these observations. Sometimes, our understanding of the life experiences of others is limited, though. By filtering everything we see and hear and contextualizing it within our own perspective on the world, we make meaning of our observations – but often, the things that we learn by watching and interacting with others lack input from the perspective of another. We do our best to understand those around us, but without considering their appearance and actions from another perspective, our understandings are limited.

In order to support children in developing a critical understanding of the experiences of others, families can engage in meaningful learning surrounding the experiences with physical and cognitive disabilities. By utilizing books, videos, podcasts, and both online and community-based educational resources, families with children of any age can begin to examine the experiences and perspectives of those with disabilities.

Spotlighting the abilities and life experiences of children, teens, and adults with diverse abilities, the resources highlighted below offer families support in digging deep into the experiences of people with physical and cognitive disabilities, as well as their family, friends, and fellow community members. While our suggestions for such studies certainly do not cover all of the physical and cognitive disabilities that members of our local community experience, they offer families a place from which to begin examining the experiences of others.

For Learning How to Approach Studies of Disabilities…

One of the most difficult parts of learning about another’s experiences is learning how to discuss the similarities and differences that exist between your experiences. When learning about people with disabilities of any kind, it is essential to ensure that modern, politically correct language is used. In fact, studies of the evolution of the terms with which we describe people with disabilities can reveal much about the ways in which our culture has evolved over time. The National Center on Workforce and Disability offers a chart of currently accepted terms for discussing people with disabilities, from which families can glean information not only about appropriate language but the terms that are no longer considered acceptable and the reasons to discontinue their use. By comparing accepted and once-accepted terms, families can learn about the ways in which our cultural perspective on people with disabilities has changed.

An additional resource for learning about the history of the treatment of people with disabilities is our archived post, Beyond Afflection: Disability-Centered Take on History. Spotlighted within this post are Beyond Affliction, a four-part radio series chronicling the experiences of people with disabilities since the early 1800’s, and lesson plans and online archives offered by the Disability History Museum, a resource that offers a text- and image-based approach to sharing the history of the treatment of people with disabilities.

Adults and older teens can also look to the pages of titles highlighted in yet another archived post – these anthologies on parenting kids with special needs share everything from the most heart-wrenching, tear-jerking moments of parenting children with special needs to the hilarious, unexpected, and unique moments that make up such experiences.

A culture of respect and appreciate for people of all abilities can be cultivated within families through a soundtrack provided by the Hilltown Family Variety Show’s Love and Social Consciousness episode.

For Learning About the Experiences of Deaf People…

Our archived post Shake It!: ASL Support and Resources in Western MA gives suggestions for ways to explore American Sign Language and for means through which to learn about and connect with the local deaf community. From meet-up groups and web-based resources to books that share characters’ experiences being deaf in a mostly hearing world, this post can serve as a way to connect families to further learning about ASL, deaf culture, and the deaf community.

In addition to using the books recommended in the post mentioned above, families can learn from the pages of even more excellent books written by people who are deaf or featuring deaf characters. Young readers can use Dad and Me in the Morning to begin examining the similarities and differences between their own life and the lives of deaf children. For readers ages 9-12, Deaf Child Crossing examines the challenges of shifting friendships as experienced by a deaf protagonist. Teens and adults can learn from Deaf Like Me, offers a parent’s perspective on raising a deaf child.

For Learning About the Experiences of People With Physical Disabilities…

Our recent post, Winter Brings Opportunities for Inclusive Recreation offers a great deal of community-based resources for engaging people with physical disabilities in all kinds of adaptive recreation opportunities. While many of these opportunities are specifically designed for participants who have disabilities (physical or cognitive), some local opportunities for adaptive recreation are open to all community members, regardless of their abilities. Families can search through local offerings to find opportunities to participate in activities alongside diverse groups of people – allowing children the opportunity to see how people whose bodies work differently than their own engage in the same kinds of activities that they do themselves.

Not meant to be an activity in which families are spectators to the actions of people with physical disabilities, participation in such activities should be centered around examining the many different ways to engage in an activity, rather than watching how an “other” can function. Rather than pointing out differences in abilities and ways of engaging, families should focus on the unique strengths and abilities that each participant has. Hockey players using sleds as adaptive technology might, for example, be lauded for their upper body strength while players using skates on their feet can be admired for their balance.

Literature-based opportunities for exploring the experiences of people with physical disabilities come in many forms. Picture book Susan Laughs spotlights the similarities in ability between a wheelchair-using child and children who use their legs to get around; middle-grade novel Out of My Mind follows a non-verbal 5th grader with cerebral palsy through the discovery of a means of communication and the challenges that come with being perceived as unintelligent due to physical disability; fantasy story Gathering Blue illuminates issues of perception and treatment of people with physical disabilities; popular middle-grade novel Wonder centers around a child with a craniofacial abnormality that enlightens readers as to the ways in which perceived disabilities affect how people who look “different” are sometimes treated; The Running Dream offers a story in which the narrator has suffered an injury that leads to permanent physical disability, forcing her to come to terms with the new way in which she navigates the world.

For Learning About the Experiences of People on the Autism Spectrum…

As disabilities that have gained massive ground in the last twenty years in terms of scientific understanding and public awareness, Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (together marking the disabilities that make up the Autism Spectrum) are captivating disabilities to explore. As people who are on the Autism spectrum have a cognitive disability, Autism and Asperger’s are not always immediately noticeable in the way that physical disabilities and other cognitive disabilities sometimes are.

One of the best resources for beginning to learn about the Autism Spectrum and what it’s like to live with this kind of cognitive disability is Carly’s Voice, a blog written by non-verbal autistic teen, Carly Fleishmann. Stuck inside her own mind for much of her life due to lack of a truly effective means of communication, Carly has found her voice through technology and communicates with others by typing her thoughts on a computer. Her story was featured on major news outlets, and since then, Carly has shared her voice through her blog and even a book in order to share her firsthand experiences of navigating a largely neurotypically-centered world. Carly’s blog, book, and videos are a perfect starting point for exploring the Autistic Spectrum because, as Carly herself eloquently points out, it makes sense to ask people about experiences they have actually had rather than asking the opinion of experts who have only made observations. Adults and teens can add another layer of information offered through firsthand experiences by reading posts from former Hilltown Families columnist Wendy Somes’ Grandpa in the House: Parenting in a Multigenerational Home, a series that spotlights not only the joys and challenges of multigenerational households but the experiences of an adult whose parent has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Families can further their learning about the experiences of people on the Autism Spectrum by working to understand and connect to the characters in some (or all!) of our recommended fiction titles featuring autistic characters. In addition to our list of recommendations are picture books like Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism and Looking After Louis; middle-grade reads like Anything But Typical and Rain Reign; and teen- and adult-friendly memoir Running With Scissors.

Autism awareness and understanding can be celebrated and spread through music, using the Autism Awareness Episode of the Hilltown Family Variety Show.

For Learning About the Experiences of People With Other Cognitive Disabilities…

Aside from Autism, cognitive disabilities come in a range of shapes and sizes. From focus-related disabilities like Attention Deficit Disorder to language-based disabilities like dyslexia, to genetic disabilities that affect cognitive function (such as Down Syndrome or dementia), cognitive disabilities come in many forms.

As cognitive disabilities are so varied and can be very different from one another, true studies of the experiences of people who have such disabilities require a close look at each specific disability on its own. Luckily, lots of great literature exists for children and teens that can help open readers’ eyes to the ways in which people with cognitive disabilities experience the world.

Young readers can learn about Down Syndrome by reading Be Good to Eddie Lee, while older readers can read Ailia: What It’s Like to be 11 Years Old and Have Down Syndrome to get a firsthand account of life as a 4th grader with an extra chromosome.

The effects of a childhood diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are seen in Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza series, the first of which is National Book Award winner Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. The Joey Pigza series certainly offers a humorous take on dealing with a diagnosis of ADHD, but Joey carries readers through the challenges and triumphs of finding effective medications, benefiting from Special Ed services, thinking in run-on sentences, and learning to curb impulsive behavior.

A firsthand account of a late(r) in life diagnosis of dyslexia is offered in Fish in a Tree, in which an 11-year-old narrator finds the roots of her academic and social challenges. Patricia Polacco’s classic Thank You, Mr. Falker tells the true story of the accomplished author’s process of learning to read – a skill that the development of which was hindered by undiagnosed dyslexia until she was in the 5th grade.

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