October 25, 2020

VIDEO: Education Majors Prepare for Exceptionalities in the Classroom

“Step, step, step …” echoed the stairwell of Webster Hall in rhythm as students guided their peers up three flights of stairs to class. Students guided a blindfolded partner using the “sighted guide” technique in a practical exercise designed to simulate blindness. The students swapped roles halfway through the simulation so that both could practice traveling safely with someone who is visually impaired.

Video by Alex King and Evan Mueller

After the exercise, several students in the class recalled their experience. Due to a heightened sense of hearing while blindfolded, one student recalled feeling as if she were being led into the traffic, instead of alongside it. One student in the class said being led upstairs was more frightening, but the majority of students who spoke up were more afraid of being led down.

“It was very mysterious. I kept feeling like I was going to fall,” said junior education major Cheryl Melville.

Blindness is just one of the many physical and learning disabilities covered in Introduction to Students with Disabilities or Exceptionalities. The broader term, “exceptionalities” is used to refer to disabilities as well as gifted students and students with English as a second language. Education professor Vicki McMullen estimates 5 percent of the United States’ student population has exceptional learning needs.

McMullen admits the 14 disability categories defined by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and associated legal requirements she must teach “can be kind of dry and boring,” so she likes to use experiential learning simulations to keep students engaged. Students in the course learn minimal sign language, have the opportunity to spend time in a wheelchair, and explore the PBS webpage “Misunderstood Minds” to better understand what it feels like to have a disability.

Education professor Vicki McMullen

“What I really want students to leave the class knowing are the basic characteristics of each disability, and to have a sense of empathy for what those individuals might experience in going through a regular school day,” McMullen said.

The course is required for all education majors in the state of Missouri, and one of two required special education courses for education majors at Webster University. While this special education course for all teachers has only been a state requirement for the last four years, research since the 1980s has shown inclusion of students with disabilities in the general curriculum provides “improved or equally favorable social and educational outcomes.” Because of this research it is now expected that students with exceptionalities will be included in the general classroom setting. Webster’s special education requirements for all education majors is a reflection of this reality.

“You know you will eventually have a child in your classroom with some sort of disability,” Melville said. “This [class] sort of gives you an idea of what to expect, and maybe some accommodations as a teacher that you can make.”

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