Passing the Bumps in the Road: Avoiding Assumptions

I’ve heard stories over the years about students with disabilities being assigned to do laundry for the football team at school or to clean the teacher’s lounge, and well-meaning teachers often assign these tasks to teach work skills. Now these activities might be helpful for some students if they are genuinely interested in janitorial work or if they have never learned some of these skills at home. But there are some fundamental problems with assuming ALL kids with disabilities should follow the same track.

  1. If students with intellectual disabilities are all assigned to do cleaning tasks around the school as part of their transition activities, their teachers may unintentionally convey the assumption that students with disabilities can only get jobs doing the eight F’s as identified by disability advocate Meriah Nichols: “food, filth, flowers, fetching, folding, filing, being friendly and/or festive.” Now people with disabilities may choose those jobs, which is wonderful if they like to do those things, have the right skills, and want to work in those industries. However, when every student with disabilities is assigned those cleaning tasks as part of a program, other people sometimes start to make the assumption that the only jobs for people with intellectual disabilities are cleaning and cooking.
  2. When professionals assume that all students with disabilities will go into certain industries, those students may end up losing the ability to define their individual strengths, skills, and interests. The best way to avoid that pitfall is for the team to assess the strengths of each student and find out what transition activities are most appropriate. For example, my son Andy wants to be a photographer, so a better transition activity for him was enrolling in the yearbook class and taking photographs of sports teams.
  3. It’s also important for the team to discuss what work skills a student with disabilities may have already developed. For example, if a student genuinely has never been expected to do chores, then activities that build those skills may be very important. However, if the student and family are working on cleaning and laundry at home, then those tasks do not need to be done at school. Instead, a student might want to spend that school time in a video production class or strengthening reading or math skills. It can also be helpful to have conversations with parents to find out if they need support with determining what supplemental chores at home might be appropriate for their son or daughter … and what strategies might work to help them move forward.
  4. Make inclusion as much a priority as employment skills. Developing employment skills is critical, but part of that is also learning how to get along with all students. Those students will be coworkers, employers, and possibly employees someday. Our students with disabilities need to learn how to work alongside peers with and without disabilities to function in a work environment. Moreover, those students can set an example about the expectation of work. The reason Andy went and initially asked for his job during high school was because he saw friends from his classes at school working at the local grocery store.
  5. On that note, you can strategically pick the most effective employment activities without displacing academics and inclusion. Transition is very important, and so are academics, particularly if a student with intellectual disabilities is planning on going to a post-secondary program. Those academic skills can continue to progress throughout high school. In our case, we had lots of opportunities for vocational field trips, but we chose for Andy to stay in class and only go on the most compelling field trips based on his interests until his senior year. Then, we agreed during his senior year for him to go on the regular Friday vocational field trips because he was closer to graduating and would only be missing a few classes on Friday morning–during a time when he was normally pulled out anyway. We also thought this was a better time for him to learn about different kinds of jobs.
  6. Take advantage of programs if they are genuinely helpful. Any decision about utilizing a program should be based on the interests and skills of the student. At first, I was reticent about a coffee shop offered at our school but later realized that would be a good math class option for Andy a few days each week because it offered practical, working knowledge of math and money. In addition, they also worked on spending and a budget. Sometimes parents and teachers both can get so concerned about what a label means that we don’t assess each program on its own merits for each student.

The key in all of these situations is to genuinely explore the skills, interests, and strengths of each student instead of making assumptions based on what programs are available. By really talking to students and learning about them, we can help students achieve their dreams!

Some great tools to help you explore and share individual students goals and dreams are the following: