In Which Third Graders Consider Wheelchairs and the People in Them

This week, an exciting conversation came out of an unexpected place. We were rewriting a short-a cheer with our very own short-a words. Everyone was having a blast (short-a word!). We were focusing on -ad, -ag, and -ap families, but the cheer had the word “stamp,” so I figured, “Let’s diversify.” So I left, -amp up and challenged the kids to come up with a word using that ending.

They were having difficulty (remember the ELL status) so I suggested we work through the alphabet and try every consonant and attach it to -amp. We got to r, and I pointed out “ramp” was a word. None of them knew what it was (except for one boy, who pointed out there’s a skateboard ramp in the park). I drew that and then thought how I could illustrate the other meaning.

The only way I could think to tangibly describe the function of a more traditional ramp was to draw a wheelchair and say, “People in wheelchairs need ramps to get into buildings.” Then I tried to get them to visualize the side of our building, where a ramp exists, as well as the annex building on our campus, which is also accessible via a ramp. I told them we could check out the ramps after lunch just to make sure we knew what they were.

Wondering why we have ramps, one of the girls pointed out that we have no students or teachers in wheelchairs at our school. I confirmed this, and pointed out that we have no elevators, either. So I asked, “How could a student or teacher in a wheelchair get up to the higher floors?” We arrived at the conclusion that they couldn’t. “Wheelchairs can’t go on stairs” was the rationale.

“But,” I asked, “should a child in a wheelchair be able to come to school, too?”

Based on how the conversation was going for some of them with their laughter and unintentionally insensitive remarks, I figured they would say that kids in wheelchairs shouldn’t come to school.

But, instead, they all said they should.

I told them about a teacher of mine in high school who used a wheelchair. I said my high school had an elevator so he could use it if he needed to. I told them this teacher drove a car, even though he was in a wheelchair. They were amazed: “How can you drive a car if your legs don’t work?” I explained the mechanism he had for his van that allowed him to be lifted into position behind the steering wheel, and they all remarked they’d seen similar on school buses.

The kids were really intrigued by this discussion and it gave me a chance to, on the spot, incorporate some higher order questioning (a big push in our school this year). So I put it out there: “Everyone said that a child in a wheelchair should go to school. But what about gym? Can children in a wheelchair go to gym?”

One student raised his hand to indicate “Yes.” Everyone else said “No.”

This led us into a wonderful discussion about some ways someone in a wheelchair can participate in gym. I told them I think there are ways a child in a wheelchair can play basketball. One student considered this and said, “He can do this (here he mimed dribbling a ball) far away from the wheelchair,” as if to say the dribbling could be modified in a way that works for the child.

“What about running?” I asked. One girl said, “Maybe we can do this (she mimed pushing the chair) for the kid.”

It was pretty clear that a child in a wheelchair could, in fact, play basketball.

We were up against lunch, and as the monitors gave out the lunches, one of the students asked me if I could show some videos about this on the SMART Board. I told him I would look for some and we could definitely watch. When we got down to lunch, I remembered I had a book about what kids with disabilities can do. I pulled the same student aside and told him to remind me when I came back that I should get the book out of the closet. When I came back 45 minutes later, he ran over to me, breathlessly, saying, “The book?”

I’m glad I allowed our interests to dictate the direction of the end of our morning that day. I think it’s great that my students are challenging their own preconceived notions of others.

So now I will ask, if you have videos on what kids with physical disabilities CAN do, that you please direct me to them. I know that somewhere along the line, I will probably be rocking the class out to this uplifting tearjerker:


One response to “In Which Third Graders Consider Wheelchairs and the People in Them

  1. Two years ago I was fortunate enough to have a student in a wheelchair as part of my group and while we had no problems adapting our environment to his chair, we had one looming problem; the final fourth grade field trip. The students all go to an underground cave and it is one of the highlights of the year. Well, we knew we could not get him into the cave in his wheelchair – so what did we do? see to find out

    and the cool thing is, he was just on the news too for his amazing table tennis skills

    I hope these inspire your kids

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