I teach a six-week unit in my 7th grade English class around a central theme: human disabilities. I developed the unit a few years after my own daughter was born with multiple disabilities because I was learning so many valuable lessons in my life, and I wanted to help my students see the world in a richer way. It has become the most memorable part of the school year for us. I think it’s successful because there’s a combination of positive factors: they are intrinsically curious about the topic, have very little prior knowledge, and are just old enough to understand these mature issues. Students read The Miracle Worker (about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan), have formal discussions, write a journal, participate in disability simulations, research a disability of their choice, and create a digital report. Good stuff.
For many, it is the first time that they have thought in depth about any of the issues related to this very normal form of human suffering. I say normal because 20% of Americans are directly effected by a disability, and nearly every one becomes disabled in their lifetime.
There is a movie which illustrates so many of these lessons, which we all need to learn. Radio, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ed Harris, and Debra Winger is superb. I have never known anyone who did not like it, and I know many who say that it profoundly effected them (myself included). I highly recommend it to everyone, especially kids age 10 and up. Here is the trailer.
It is based on a true story that has spanned over forty years. You can read more about the real people at http://www.radioandcoachjones.com/