By Philip Baillargeon
Having an equitable learning environment is incredibly important to me. My brother is on the autism spectrum, and remembering the amount of extra time he needed to take tests, the amount of access he needed to discuss concerns with a teacher privately, and the encouragement and joy he derived from some truly fantastic teachers at Williamsville East High School, I am deeply concerned about the community of students like my brother whom are in an online learning platform that is non conducive to the learning these students need right now.
Take a moment to think about everyday tasks in an online only setting and how much harder they are for someone with an atypical brain structure. For someone with dyslexia, reading off a computer screen to take a test at home is much more difficult than a paper copy in a relatively distraction-free room. The same is true for students with ADHD or high functioning students with autism; a childhood bedroom is much more different than a quiet classroom. Many of these students would receive extended time on tests; now, with shortened school days, this has become a logistical nightmare. Students with difficult family lives have similar issues, whereas school may have been an outlet, they are now plugged into a home outlet and unable to freely interact with teachers and peers like they used to. No matter their situation, this learning model is a constant reminder; you are trapped.
This doesn’t have to be so bleak, however; arguably, in a time where many neurotypical students may feel trapped inside their own homes, now is a great opportunity to build a strong community and teach true tolerance. This isn’t an “everyone is special” speech or generic copy-paste statement on the value of diversity in an email; we have a moment to really explore what it means to think, feel, and act differently, and how this has its costs and benefits. Take my brother; he has a breadth of knowledge in cinematic history and is an encyclopedia of the dynamics of the entertainment industry today, however, speech issues sometimes give him trouble articulating that information quickly. I guarantee many of his peers understand this, but maybe they lack the language to articulate what exactly they are going through. With a revamped curriculum on diversity, including mental disability, I believe we could come closer to the accepting, harmonious community we have been striving for.
Another facet of this inclusiveness mission would be providing online materials for those who require them when we reopen fully again, because another aspect of disability advocacy is the spectrum of needs that need to be fulfilled. For some students with learning disabilities, taking notes and listening to a lecture at the same time is practically impossible. With the online curricula developed now, students have access to class content at their fingertips. Moving forward, more effectively utilizing online resources for these types of learners instead of scavenging YouTube for a particular topic would foster more community and provide a diverse set of learners with the tools for success.
Also in the interest of fairness, the district is allowing students with a certain threshold of needs to be in the school building in a cohort of their peers to receive flexible, in person instruction. However, many students with equally important needs are being left at home with limited attention being given to their struggle to adapt to an unfair system. I encourage readers to self reflect, consider the condition of someone who has difficulty with learning under normal circumstances, and to empathize with them as they reflect on their own difficulties during this challenging time. I also encourage positive, proactive thinking from our administration as we challenge ourselves to provide an equitable education for all that introduces students to the vast collection of human beings on this Earth and their trials and tribulations. This time of relative chaos is a great opportunity to rebuild and reimagine an equitable future.