Sunday, July 11, 2010

Making Fairness Happen

In the United States we tend to have a somewhat paradoxical view of the concept of fairness. On one hand, one of the most basic beliefs that the country is built upon is that America is a country in which anyone, no matter what their background, has as fair a chance as anyone else to become successful if they are willing to put in the work to achieve it. On the other hand, Americans as a group are very willing to overlook the advantages of some, wealth, health, social support and political power, and disadvantages of others, poverty, social ostracization, disconnects with the dominant culture, illness and disabilities. Taking these factors into account it would be impossible to think of American society as fair, some people simply have a large head start on their path to success than others despite the myth of fairness that dominates our own political rhetoric.

Fairness and equality have many different meanings in our culture. For some people it might suggest an equity in the opportunities that are afforded to each person, yet the situation described earlier shows that this notion of fairness has great flaws in it. For some people fairness is a balancing of outcomes, in which every person is has an equal right to the benefits of human civilization regardless of their input. It really isn't difficult to see the flaws in this idea, mostly motivational factors for doing the work that is considered undesirable. The seventeenth century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, said on the subject of equality, “Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.”1 In his mind equality was not a moral decision but instead a natural matter of fact. For the purpose of this essay equality is somewhat similar to the description given by Hobbes. Equality means that no person is worth any more or less than any other person, regardless of their cultural background, gender, genetic makeup, or physical and mental condition. Fairness in the educational field is applying that equality and affording all children with an education because each individual student has their own value, and children with disabilities are no different than any other child in this manner.

Because each student has their own value, fairness is an incredibly important concept for every teacher to understand. Each student we teach has a potential for learning and contributing to our society in the future as long as we are willing to give them the time and effort that is required. In the case of children with disabilities it can at times be more difficult to discover that potential, but that doesn't make educating that child any less important than any other. Children with disabilities are as much a part of our future as another child without. In providing children with disabilities an education it not only enriches our own society but also those individual's lives, helping them to socialize with other people and lead fulfilling lives that they can enjoy without being looked down upon, pitied, or forgotten.

If we are to keep fairness in mind though, simply educating children with disabilities is not enough. We must afford them educations as thorough as any other child, including them in classrooms with children without disabilities to learn socialization as well as school lessons. Other children can learn as much as these children can about one another, discovering that in spite of an appearance of separation, they are not really as different as one might imagine. If we were to educate children with disabilities separately from those without this interaction would never occur and both children would be worse off for it because neither would have the opportunity to learn from one another. In addition to this, our own American history has shown us that a “separate but equal” education is never truly equal. If we are to give these children the education that they deserve we must make all efforts possible to educate them in regular classrooms with everyone else.

Saying that this fairness should occur and implementing it are two different things. Making fairness happen is a process that will take a teacher's entire career to achieve; it is a task that will never end. The first step in making fairness happen is an internal step within the teacher themselves. The teacher must take the step to be willing to work with children with disabilities and not push that responsibility on to another. If we are not willing to give these children an education ourselves who will? Understanding that it will be a difficult and challenging process, we must be willing to take children with disabilities into our own classrooms and make them a part of the class like any other child. Putting the child into the classroom still isn't enough though. We must work to be inclusive, integrating the child into the classroom where they can work with other children and participate in the class regardless of their disability.

The next step to making fairness happen is to understand that we as teachers are not expected to do this alone and that the resources to assist us are there if we're willing to ask for them. There are a plethora of other professionals who are willing and able to assist teachers who have included children with disabilities into their classrooms ranging from special educators, paraprofessionals and assistive technology specialists among others. These are all people whose job it is to help teachers who have taken children with disabilities into their classrooms and who can help to make that child's inclusion into the classroom as easy as possible. Other professionals are not the only resource available though. It is important to remember that the student themselves and their parents can both provide a teacher with some of the knowledge that is needed to provide the child with an appropriate education.

Another thing to remember in making fairness happen is to remember that a teacher's job is to teach children, not lessons. The subject matter of the course is important however, it is more important to ensure that each student is receiving a lesson that is appropriate for their own current level of capability. If a child with a disability is not ready for an algebra lesson it is the teacher's job to make sure that the student is receiving an education that corresponds with what is expected by the student's IEP instead of trying to shift the responsibility of educating that student on to another teacher. We as teachers need to be willing to be flexible in our teaching to make our class beneficial for all of our students, adjusting lessons when necessary to improve accessibility. Different children will have different learning needs and if we are not willing to differentiate our lessons and methods of teaching in many cases we will not be educating these children, but instead ensuring their failure.

Though fairness can be a complicated issue in American politics, it doesn't have to be so in the classroom. We have an obligation to give each child, disabled or not, an education and to prepare them for the world that they live in. There are no fairness paradoxes in educating children with disabilities, either we are providing them with the educations that they need or we are failing them and taking away from their potential. As teachers fairness is not a choice, but an obligation.

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