What about the other kids? As a district consultant for inclusive education, this is one of many zingers that I hear on a daily basis. I am always looking for new ways of answering this question, and then I met Ali.
I remember the day well, I was invited to discuss assistive technology possibilities for a student in grade 4. All I knew was that he had multiple disabilities, was nonverbal and had little vision. But I also knew, as I walked into this meeting, that this little guy was loved, as I was greeted by his 11-person team.
His name was Ali. Him and his family had recently arrived in Canada. Fleeing civil war, they were refugees escaping oppression and discrimination already, despite the added disabilities. I was curious as to his story. How did he get here?
When I arrived, Ali was asleep. The team was concerned, as he was usually more alert. The family’s interpreter was asked to call home and make sure everything was OK. As we waited a colleague passed me his file.
I will limit the details, but will say that Ali’s disabilities were from bullet wounds received in utero. Somehow, however, both Ali and his mother survived. Ali, unable to walk, see or talk because of his injuries. Without medical services available at the time, his mother strapped this boy to her body, and she carried him. For five years, she carried him, wrapped around her. She carried him out. Out of war. Out of turmoil. Literally heart to heart.
10 minutes after the phone call home, mom arrived. She walked in elegant and modest in her traditional hijab and without saying a single word, Ali’s eyes opened. The interpreter explained Ali’s trouble sleeping, I however, tuned out after 10 seconds, as I was enthralled by the interaction before me.
Ali’s mother sat beside him amongst the professional jargon. She put her mouth to his ear and whispered his name over and over. He smiled, his hand squeezed hers. He turned towards her voice. This connection was one that crossed language and ability. This connection that I had witnessed in 2 minutes was a deeper connection that I had ever felt in my own life. In this situation, I was not the able bodied.
These 2 individuals connected on a level not of disability, but on a level to which everyone in the world strives to achieve. Ali and his mother were the exemplar. They were the able. They were the people we seek to understand and aspire towards.
Ali’s teacher had welcomed him early. She had heard he was arriving and was proactive in contacting additional support. A general education teacher, with a background in art education, her attitude was open and her philosophy sound.
With an upcoming unit about adjectives and descriptive words in writing, this teacher spent an evening collecting recycled materials and crafty supplies. She piled them on the table and using the book, “That’s Not My Dinosaur” by Fiona Watt, designed an activity where students in the class created a page of the book. The students, however, had to use texture to describe words, and by the end, this class made a collective and parallel book to the published. A book filled with rich texture perfect for any student, but especially perfect, for a student with a vision impairment.
The students worked hard, carefully incorporating lessons co-taught with the vision teacher, about how to use contrasting colours and backgrounds. Once complete, Ali sat with his classmates. The book was read aloud one page at a time. Everyone watched as Ali felt each page made just for him by his peers. Savouring every detail, listening to the words read and turning every page. All eyes locked on Ali, ears open, hands still, all watching and learning.
Ali’s teacher embedded her lessons in an authentic learning experience, and knowingly or not, she had also mastered an example of UDL.An activity designed for one, but useful to all. A framework supporting diversity, extending beyond the walls of education and into architecture, medicine and the world.
I would love to bring Ali to everyone who has ever asked me, “what about the other kids?” I would introduce Ali as “the boy who taught us.”. I would show them how we are the lucky ones. Especially the other kids so lucky to be in a class, where students of all abilities learn from each other.
I still catch myself wondering how one of those 14 bullets not hit something vital to survival. I know that Ali has me reflecting on this and many things, but most of all, how he has taught me that we can learn from each other. That we all have strengths and that we all have stretches. And that we are all here to learn, if we chose to reflect beyond what we think we already know about ourselves and more importantly what we think we know about “the other.”