Part of the excitement of going back to school is thinking about the fun parts of the school experience. Many children look forward to playing with friends during recess, having lively conversations at lunchtime or on the school bus, and field trips that bring history, art and science up close and personal. Many schools also offer extra-curricular activities that range from sports, music, and drama to special interest or service clubs. It is through these activities that many students form lasting friendships, discover gifts and talents, or gain experiences that help prepare them for future careers.
Students that have disabilities should be encouraged to consider becoming actively involved in all parts of school life. By law (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), they should be given an equal opportunity to participate, but sometimes that message is not clearly communicated to the students, or to the adults that make the extra-curricular activities possible. In some schools, notices about club sign-ups, team tryouts or driver’s education courses are not even distributed in the special education classrooms. It’s hard to make a choice when you don’t know what the options are.
School staff may need to be more intentional in their effort to publicize these opportunities throughout the entire student population. Parents can also ask about what’s going on at their child’s school and the process for becoming involved if their child has an interest in a particular activity.
Some students with disabilities may need accommodations, assistive technology or other supports to successfully participate in their chosen extra-curricular activity. They may also need accommodations for some of the non-academic parts of the regular school day. IEP teams and 504 committees sometimes overlook these times when they are discussing the child’s educational needs. In some cases, this amounts to a missed opportunity to enhance the child’s school experience by supporting them through their disability-related challenges, or continue to work on IEP goals in a non-classroom setting. For other children, such an oversight can set them up for avoidable social or behavioral difficulties.
The good news is that IEPs and Section 504 accommodation plans are living documents that can be revised whenever the need to do so arises. Teachers, coaches and other adults also have the freedom to make many accommodations on their own when they identify a need for them. It almost goes without saying that a child may need different types of support for different activities.
The I’m Tyler video http://imtyler.org/index.php/video/ does a powerful job of making the point that students with disabilities are capable of participating in a wide range of activities when the adults around them focus more on what they can do than on what they can’t do. A little effort, imagination and open-mindedness goes a very long way toward giving students with disabilities the chance that they deserve to experience each day as full members of their school and larger communities.