Despite good intentions and even substantial progress towards inclusive educational practices, students with disabilities are often isolated at school. A priority of Matan Institutes for Education Directors and Early Childhood Directors is addressing how to enable social integration.
If we want social inclusion, we need to teach all of our students inclusive social skills. No children are born knowing how to interact with each other. As adults, we set expectations and teach children how to meet those expectations. As children mature, they learn communication skills that enable them to stop hitting and start collaborating. The current model is only set up to teach typically developing kids to interact with other typically developing kids.
All too often, ‘social skills’ has become a euphemism for ‘interacting in the ways that typically developing children interact.’ Within that model, teaching social skills means correcting deficits in disabled students. Making eye contact is thought of as a social skill; having a conversation with an autistic person who is looking at their hands is not. This approach undermines equality by asking disabled students to take sole responsibility for communication. We need a model of social development that assumes that all kids are equally responsible for making interactions work.
How do we get there? Part of the answer is found in the Talmud. Asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” Having good social skills means acting with the assumption that other people matter just as much as we do, and that hateful actions hurt them just as deeply. This is easier said than done. We spend our whole lives learning the commentaries and learning to do better by one another.
Disability Awareness days tend to be ineffective because they don’t build skills. What we say frontally is the least important part of teaching our students to respect each other. Most of this social learning is a result of the expectations we set and the ongoing scaffolding we provide. In inclusive classrooms, social expectations are set with the assumption that Hillel’s golden rule applies to people with and without disabilities.
For example, in order to have an inclusive class discussion, everyone involved needs to be able to both express themselves and listen to others. Historically, most people have only been taught to listen to people whose speech is typical. It is just as important to teach students to listen to people with cerebral palsy accents, AAC users, and those who communicate by repeating phrases from television.
Similarly, most people are only taught to be understandable to non-disabled people. We need to teach inclusive social skills like giving people the time they need to process, using language that people with various kinds of disabilities can understand, and reframing when something is confusing. In addition, students with disabilities need to be accepted and given space to become understandable in the ways that work best for them. For instance, students whose speech is unreliable may need to focus on nonverbal communication skills, participate by writing down their thoughts, or use a text-to-speech iPad app. Inclusive social skills create equality by making room for difference.
Since 2012, I have been writing a blog, realsocialskills.org, dedicated to building a more inclusive model of social skills and the most recent Matan webinar that I hosted, “Inclusion as a Social Skill”, explores these issues in more detail. You can view the video here below and the slides here http://tinyurl.com/socialskills613.
Rabbi Ruti Regan, @RutiRegan, is a Conservative rabbi and disabled disability advocate. She writes the realsocialskills.org blog. She serves as Rabbinic Disability Scholar in Residence at Matan (matankids.org). She provides ritual consulting and training for rabbis, cantors and communities in accessibility and disability-informed spiritual leadership. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Matan (matankids.org) educates Jewish leaders, educators and communities, empowering them to create learning environments supportive of children with disabilities, through training Institutes and consultations across North America.