Panel: Disabled are not unable in the classroom

By Debbie Kosinski

Many people use disabled and unable as synonymous terms, but to stay within this frame of ignorance when relating to the population of disabled people, is to place a handicap on yourself.

This is the message five NIU educators shared through a panel discussion Tuesday by describing their experiences with having a diversity of disabled students in their classrooms.

The discussion began with each panel member describing the changes their teaching styles undertook, as well as touching on some personal enrichments they’ve enjoyed through their realizations that disabled students are not unable students.

Judy Santacaterina, an instructor in communication studies, focused mainly on the differences adopted in how she teaches her COMS 100 classes. “Having disabled students in my classes has enhanced the creativity of my teaching strategy,” she noted. “I rely now more on facial expressions and the tone of my voice for the visually impaired.”

Other panel members added they have made significant changes that are quite easy to make, such as using blackboards and overhead projectors more and verbalizing key points and instructions in clear, complete sentences.

The panelists all agreed that although different courses obviously require different teaching tactics and approaches, a common challenge is faced—to create a classroom so congenial to one’s learning experience that it no longer is seen as a change in normal classroom routine to accommodate a disabled student.

All five panelists have had students with varied disabilities, from the hearing and visually impaired to students with stuttering problems or dyslexia. Each speaker commented on how the open communication between the teacher and the disabled student brought many advantages to a classroom.

Sara Elliot, teaching assistant in the English department, remarked that especially in writing classes, where students essentially study how people communicate their thoughts, having diversity in the classroom can only strengthen the learning experience. “Disabled students force you to expand your traditional ways of communicating, and it enhances the focus of the student as an individual,” she said.

Other students in these classrooms were found to be very supportive, and there has always been an abundance of volunteers to assist the disabled with note-taking and other tasks.

James Grosklags, a retired assistant professor in biological science, “ensured that disabled students do not provide an extra burden.”

“They are taught in the same way as traditional students,” he said.

Professors are aided in the alterations of exams for the disabled students, as well as the other minor modifications needed to accommodate them, by the Office of Students With Disabilities at NIU.

Elliot, who also is an employee at the Office of Students With Disabilities, remarked that the office provides such services as tutoring, reading text for the visually impaired and creating convenient routes for the disabled students to get around on campus.

There are still many areas of the classroom that are far from being perfectly adjusted to disabled students’ needs, yet Geography Professor Richard Greene noted, “In the future this (complete alteration of every educational outlet on campus) will become a bigger issue.”

“All we need to do is to focus on everyone’s blessings,” Santacaterina said. “People’s positive aspects can then outshadow the negative things … or ‘disabilities.'”