Back to School is an “A+” Experience with These Inclusion Practices

accessiBe News

Working alongside some amazing nonprofit organizations has enabled us to gather key insights into inclusive education. We’ve collected a list of access initiatives and best practices. Read on for some of the best and brightest ABCs of Back to School Inclusion.

accessiBe Team

Back to school can be an exciting time of the year! Parents and children are shopping for school supplies, they’re buying trendy outfits to show off in the hallways, and kids are getting ready to reunite with their friends during lunchtime. But back to school can also be a very stressful time for families who are raising a child with a disability. That’s why inclusion needs to be primary subject for families and educators from the start of this new school year, to make sure a diverse range of students are accounted for when that first homeroom bell rings.

During the 2021-2022 school year, 7.3 million students with disabilities in the U.S. made up 15% of the national public school enrollment rate, and that number rises annually. Returning to a school that prioritizes inclusion and accessibility impacts the overall education experience, and so classrooms need to account for the diverse range of students who live with varying physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities. 

Working alongside some amazing nonprofit organizations has enabled us to gather key insights on inclusive education, and we’ve collected a list of access initiatives, best practices, and culture techniques that are being implemented around the world in educational settings. So without further ado, here are some of the best and brightest ABCs of Back to School Inclusion. 

A is for Access

Accessibility is key for inclusion, and the school environment is no different. Teachers, administrators, and school boards proactively work to make the year inclusive for all students. They do their best to guarantee that students have access to the main building and facilities inside while ensuring easy navigation throughout the school’s halls. Communicating with parents and making sure their voices are heard, is also imperative to the success of inclusive education, as mentioned by Ellie Ambuehl, Ed.D, Executive Director of the La Grange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE) in Illinois.

Physical access in schools is the ramps that secure buildings and playground entrances for students with mobility disabilities. It’s accessible bathrooms with ample space and the appropriate structure for students using wheelchairs, and it’s the necessary equipment that’s available to them and fits their respective disabilities. 

Recently, Habilitas, a Montreal-based and disability-focused organization, raised $3 million for an accessible playground with accessible carousels. The playground was built using materials that don’t interfere with hearing aids and comes complete with a set of toys that make audio sounds for children with low vision. To learn more about Habilitas’ accessible playground, check out a full video describing it here.

Schools and teachers also go the extra mile by creating inclusive learning activities that allow every student to feel included and participate. For example, the Visually Impaired Preschool Services in Kentucky added Braille on the walls and on other surroundings for students who are blind as well as adjustable lighting for students with photosensitive epilepsy.

Schools practicing accessibility and inclusion are integrating all of these infrastructure measures into their buildings to create a safe space for students with disabilities to partake in every part of their day independently and with confidence. 

But access doesn’t end in the physical world. As many of us know, or learned during the pandemic, online access is a crucial part of accessibility in schools. It includes using accessible platforms like Zoom with closed captions for students with hearing loss or integrating closed captions on other forms of multimedia. Audio players for students with visual, cognitive, or neurological disabilities are being used so they can read along with books and other learning materials, too. Some schools are also supplying noise-canceling headphones to students with cognitive or learning disabilities to create a more focused learning environment, and in other cases, teachers send out accessible PowerPoint files to any student who needs to follow a presentation using assistive technology. 

Speaking of assistive technology, schools incorporate Braille on keyboards for students who are blind or with visual disabilities and install screen readers and magnifier software on computers. They’re covering all the necessary bases to create an equitable learning environment for everyone. 

B is for Best Practice

Many classrooms are and have been stocking up on resources to appeal to diverse needs. For instance, some students are using more tactile resources, while others are using assistive technologies. Many schools and classrooms take action by: 

  • Installing Eye Gaze technology on computer screens for students with mobility disabilities to use eye movement as a mouse.
  • Creating safe spaces for neurodiverse students and children with sensory needs can be helpful for talking about difficult topics such as sexual education and hygiene, and securing breakout areas is a great way to help them if they need to self-regulate.
  • Color-coding in all of the classrooms for neurodiverse students or children with cognitive disabilities. Teachers can come and go, but the color stays the same.
    Incorporating Braille for students who are blind or have low vision.
  • Installing hearing loop technology in classrooms and other facilities to support students who wear hearing aids.
  • Providing speech and occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, and mental health counseling. 

The Viscardi Center, an organization that educates and empowers youth with physical disabilities, aims to always create inclusive experiences for students of varying abilities by live-streaming school trips and implementing adaptive sports during physical education classes and recess. 

Rebekah Poe, a Special Education teacher and content creator, is using her platform to educate general education teachers about providing the most inclusive environment and dispelling myths about classroom accommodations being difficult. In Rebekah’s recent Spotlight Session, she shared some amazing best practices for the classroom.

C is for Culture

“All children deserve the opportunity to express themselves, be creative, and learn new things, including children with disabilities or neurodivergence. But these opportunities can only be accessed when a child is in an environment that supports their individual needs both when they are ‘ready to learn' and when they aren’t.” - Sarah Jones, Access Sport

Schools are actively normalizing disabilities by setting up a culture of inclusion on the playground, in class, and during lunchtime. Making students feel welcome but also understood by teachers and peers is at the core of what many teachers and their institutions practice. 

“Today’s children are tomorrow’s decision-makers. Normalizing disability and inclusion at a young age helps ensure that decisions made in the future take everyone into consideration.” - Avigail Aronoff, Director of Communications and Community Outreach, Habilitas 

In a Spotlight Session with Dr. Marlene Sotelo, Executive Director of Els for Autism, a non-profit organization, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families, she highlighted reverse inclusion which is to bring people in from the community or supporting older students to go out to the community. 

“It is as important for the kids with disabilities to be in a typical environment, as it is for those kids who do not have obvious disabilities to be with kids with special needs.” - Ellie Ambuehl from LADSE

Schools and their teachers are creating inclusive cultures by assembling Boards of Directors and Parent Committees that involve people with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities. In some cases, students have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), for specialized resources, and teachers are familiar with incorporating those in the general education environment. Schools are also constructing resource centers inside of schools that are built to include children through universal design. These resource centers are designated to provide information and materials on inclusion and accessibility practices for those who need to implement them in their classrooms. 

Outside of the classroom, and on the playground, activities that include everyone are being encouraged day by day, but quiet areas are still designated for neurodiverse students and children with sensory needs. School community members are also consistently considerate of designated spaces that include parking and drop-off locations at the school entrance.

Finally, staff training and development is still one of the most critical inclusion and accessibility practices implemented by many schools: 

“Staff professional development is very important as it ensures they know how best to alter any lessons or way they deliver lessons to suit specific needs. This can be anything from the language they use and the way they explain something (for students who are neurodiverse, blind, or low vision) to where they position themselves and certain students in the classroom (for students who are deaf or hard of hearing) and even the body language and or simple signs they might use while speaking.” - Sarah Stevens, Head of Marketing, Communications and Fundraising, St. Gabriel School Castle Hill

ABC… Easy as 1, 2, 3! 

Welcoming students back to school and into the classroom is such a more enjoyable experience when inclusion is put at the forefront of classroom design, lesson planning, recess activities, and internet use. That’s why it comes as no surprise that classroom inclusion is being prioritized. Access to the school itself is imperative, so implementing best practices, and creating classroom and playground cultures based on inclusion are only aspects of accessibility that will continue to gain traction and we can count on our educators to keep doing a great job.