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When You Have Students in Wheelchairs

written by: Mayflor Markusic • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

It is not enough for schools to have structures or adaptations that accommodate students with physical disabilities. It is crucial for teachers to know how to manage a classroom with students who are in wheelchairs. How?

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    A Unique Situation

    School adaptations for the physically disabled, such as lower door handles, wider doors, and ramps, are helpful for students who use mobility chairs. But these adaptations just provide easy access to the school facilities and do not assure the success of the academic students who have physical disabilities. There are many factors to consider and one of the most critical ones is the interaction with teachers. The teacher who has children in wheelchairs in the classroom is placed in a unique situation that will allow the teacher to significantly affect these children’s academic success.

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    Teacher Tips

    Based on the experience of teachers who had success in dealing with children with physical abilities, here are some helpful tips to consider:

    • Discreet assistance – Students with physical disabilities appreciate teachers who are sympathetic to their situation. But if the sympathy is too obvious, the same students can be alienated. Thus, when providing assistance, teachers should be discreet and unobtrusive. Such assistance includes clearing paths or suggesting alternative routes, ensuring that the classroom arrangement allows free movement, and keeping the wheelchair within the student’s reach during transfers.

    • One-on-one pact – Children in wheelchairs will have different needs, depending on the type of physical disability. Therefore, teachers should hold short one-on-one conversations with these students to determine their unique needs. The teacher could begin by simply stating that he/she wants to learn how and when to help the student in the wheelchair.

    • Face-to-face conversations – When the teacher is talking to children in wheelchairs, it can be frustrating for the children to always look up. Polite words are not enough to convey warmth and sincerity. The teacher must kneel down until his/her eyes are almost at the same level as the student’s.

    • Personal space – Everyone values personal space. For children in physical disabilities, that space includes the mobility chairs. The teacher should avoid patting the student’s head and shoulders and avoid leaning against the wheelchair.

    • Modeling – Finally, the best way to help these special students is to model supportive, accepting, and considerate ways in dealing with them. There is a fine line between empathy and pity. The teacher should model the former and not the latter by keeping in mind that the wheelchair improves the student's mobility and not the symbol of his/her physical challenges. Then, the other students will learn from and copy the actions of teacher and will also contribute to the success of students with physical disabilities.