Answering questions about inclusion in schools needs to involve students

December 3, 2019 | Society

When Dr. Natalia Rohatyn-Martin first began studying how students with disabilities were included in classrooms, she noticed a few big gaps. First, that nailing down a single definition of inclusion was going to be difficult – educators, government officials and parents all seemed to have different ideas. Second, that research on inclusion seemed to focus on where students were placed in the school rather than how they were included. And most importantly, that researchers hadn’t really ever asked students what inclusion meant to them.

So when Natalia began her own research of inclusion among deaf students – inspired by seeing her own brother’s strengths and struggles in school – she was careful to ask junior high and high school students about their own experiences.

“Students were able to eloquently tell me exactly what inclusion meant to them and what it felt like when they weren’t included,” she says. “Every student, regardless of how they spoke about their own strengths and the barriers they faced, talked about the sense of belonging that they felt when they were included in the classroom. When teachers, educational assistants and peers made them feel like they were part of the school, regardless of any difference or extenuating need that they had, they felt included.”

It’s a message Natalia brings into the courses she teaches within MacEwan University’s Special Needs Educational Assistant program.

Every student, regardless of how they spoke about their own strengths and the barriers they faced, talked about the sense of belonging that they felt when they were included in the classroom.
—Natalia Rohatyn-Martin

“Inclusion is about so much more than the physical space where a student is in a school,” she says. “It’s about getting the support and services you need, and feeling like you’re contributing.”

Natalia is continuing to use a student-focused approach in her current research. Working with university students who are deaf, she is developing a tool to measure levels of fatigue in the classroom.

Students who have disabilities often need to work much harder and the fatigue that results can be compromising for students, affecting their social and emotional health, she explains. She hopes that a scale to indicate when students might be struggling could help educators identify other solutions – like taking breaks at specific times – to help address fatigue before behaviours start to occur.

“When you can actually see what’s going on, you can do so much more,” she says. “It’s about preventing students from being labelled as disengaged, when really their brain just can’t work any longer.”

Shifting beliefs and attitudes around disability is something Natalia and her students spent their last official lecture of the Fall semester discussing.

“We talked about understanding where our biases are and how those are reflected within our practices,” she says. “And we spoke about letting our students really be able to shine and making sure to ask them what they need.”

Not making assumptions is something Natalia hopes everyone will take time to consider, particularly on December 3, International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

“Take a moment to look around and notice some of the things we may take for granted – being able to cross the street in the time allotted or being able to walk up a flight of stairs to a class when an elevator is broken,” she says. “It’s important for everyone – educational assistants, teachers, parents and all members of society – to be aware of barriers and what we can do to break them down.”

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