Sunday, July 06, 2008

The dignity of choice

In my real life I am a resource teacher. That means that I work part of the day teaching grade one kids how to read, part of the day teaching language arts or math to small groups or whole classes, and part of the day with special needs kids.

Each year I only work with three or four special needs kids. Some are hearing impaired, mentally handicapped, severely learning disabled, and this year a 12 year old girl with Down's syndrome. I see her two or three periods a week and the aide is with her the rest of the week.

It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career to work with children like her. She has the vocabulary of a 3 year old, largely unintelligible speech and reads at an early grade one level. She has limited intellectual potential even for her diagnosis.

However, she is absolutely delightful to be with. She has a wonderful sense of humour and enjoys books more than any other child I can remember. She talks to the characters and anticipates what will happen on the next page. Of course, she knows what will happen on the next page because she reads every book at least 20 times.

As she reads, the letters stimulate her to pronounce the sounds better. She can now make most of the sounds one needs to speak English. This was a big struggle for her, but she loves associating each letter with the alphabet chart on the wall. She loves each animal, E for elephant and so on. You get the picture.

Her programme consists of reading, and writing, mostly single words or up to three words at a time. This is very difficult for her. She also has to learn to count out items matching quantity with a number. She loves music and PE. She has a computer and can use great phonics websites and programmes. is a big hit.

But the big success is the snack event. On Tuesday, we read a book about food, breakfast, or fruit or how to make a milkshake, or something like that. On Thursday, she makes a list and goes shopping with her aide.

On Friday, she prepares the food with her aide, and then she serves it to a group of students who are working on a class newspaper. She passes around the food and we all have a taste. For example, one time we put out pieces of three fruit, strawberries, banana coins, and grapes. Then we talk about which fruit we like the best.

On a chartstand there is a bar graph with the three different fruit along the bottom. Each student puts a happy face in the column above the fruit that they like best. Then we see which food was the most popular. We photograph the chart and we put it in the newspaper. Some students also learn how to turn the chart into an Excel chart.

The learning goals for the Down's syndrome child are to have her identify and express her choice or personal preference. The student also learns appropriate group behaviour and how to act as hostess and leader of the group. She plans, buys and prepares the food. She cleans up. She passes the food around and passes the pen for other students to record their choice. It is her event.

Experiencing and expressing personal autonomy is essential to psychological health. These students are more than just trainable. We do not train even a child of the most limited ability as if she were anything less than fully human. She also has the experience of being the leader of the group. She controls the pace and responses. We each need the experience of functioning as a leader. We ask this for all of us, that we would also be able to experience and express choice in ways that are respectful of other people.


Judy Redman said...

I think it is sooo exciting that children with disabilities are now being given the opportunity to extend themselves like this. I live in a town of about 22,000 and there is a young woman with Down's syndrome who is probably functioning at the other end of the spectrum of functioning for her disability - she has a driver's licence and drives herself around to the range of activities she's involved in. I met her first in an aquaerobics class. Even twenty-five years ago, no-one would ever have considered the possibility that someone with a diagnosis of Down's syndrome could possibly be a safe driver, but this young woman certainly is!!

Ferg said...

A wonderful post Sue. Thanks.

Matthew Celestine said...

Absolutely right.

It is so important for us to be able to make choices and express preferences.

Working in drugs services, I have learned how important it is for people with addiction problems to be enabled to make choices.

God Bless


Bill Heroman said...

Nice, very nice.

Anonymous said...

Your love and respect for these children shines through in this post. Blessings to you.


Suzanne McCarthy said...

I will later expand this post and have it published in our provincial teacher's magazine.

However, I thought that it was an important statement on authority/permission and the individual. We do not restrict even children to total submission.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


That's great. Its always a tough one to set realistic boundaries and not blame oneself for the level of limitation. We had hoped that she would learn to read faster, but so be it. We do what we can.

Just A Berean said...

It may be that part of being human is the ability to make a wide variety of choices, which may also be a part of the image of God we are created in.

Great insight here.

Anonymous said...

Apologies first thing for the length, but this is important and germane. Dallas Willard in "The Divine Conspiracy" writes:

"Every last one of us has a 'kingdom'-or a 'queendom' or a 'government'- a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens. Here is a truth that reaches into the deepest part of what it is to be a person. Some may think it should not be so...But it is nevertheless true that we are made to 'have dominion' within an appropriate domain of reality. This is the core of the likeness or image of God in us and is the basis of the destiny for which we were formed. We are, all of us, never-ceasing spiritual beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God's great universe. Our 'kingdom' is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we genuinely have say over is in our kingdom...In creating human beings God made them to rule, to reign, to have dominion in a limited sphere. Only so can they be persons.

"Any being that has say over nothing at all is no person....They would be reduced to completely passive observers who count for nothing, who make no difference. The sense of having some degree of control over things is now recognized as a vital factor in both mental and physical health and can make the difference between life and death in those who are seriously ill...Obviously, having a place of rule goes to the very heart of who we are, of our integrity, strength, and competence.

"By contrast, attacks on our personhood always take the form of diminishing what we can do or have say over, sometimes up to the point of forcing us to submit to what we abhor. In the familiar human order, slaves are at the other end of the spectrum from kings. Their bodies and lives are at the disposal of another. Prisoners are, in most cases, several degrees above slaves. And, as the twentieth century has taught us, thought control is worst of all. It is the most heinous form of soul destruction, in which even our own thoughts are not really ours. It reaches most deeply into our substance." pp21-22

Read some stuff at a couple of the links you put up, Suzanne- so disheartening. Can't do it anymore; this is the only place I will comment now. There are other things in my life that need doing, without that weight. Again, may you have abundant strength in the Lord in standing up to what is really not flesh and blood... Not every "traditionalist" believes that garbage.

Dana Ames

Just A Berean said...

Sometimes there does seem to be a fine or hazy line between being honest of personal opinion and being respectful of others personal opinions. I've crossed over the line a time or two, and I've gritted teeth over someone else's crossing of that line.

Add to that the issue of control. It seems to me that respect also requires us to hold life loosely in our relationships with others. We should not so 'demand' their respect that they have to walk on eggshells in order to dialogue with us.

Its not an easy balance to those who attempt it.l